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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Understanding Violence By Women: A Review of the Literature

Measurement And Tools

Assessment tools developed for women

On the existence of measures and tools for women in this field there is almost nothing to report. Most of the measurement tools, or evaluations in the fields of anger management, assessment of risk and need, risk prediction, institutional violence and assault, are based on men, or relate to male populations.

Thomas (1993) similarly stresses that tools for measuring women's anger have not been developed. `Many of the anger tools in current use were developed by men (eg. Spielberger et al., (1983) and a common method of tool development was borrowing items from previously developed tools.' (p. 261) None consider women's own accounts of how they feel when angry. Thus she points out that most tools cite hitting as an expression of anger, but never crying, a common response elicted from the women in her study.

Most institutional classification systems concerned with assessing risk and need, as well as being based on male populations, are American. Assessments of their relevance to women offenders indicate that they consistently overclassify women in security terms (as has been true in Canada too) have not been adjusted to suit female populations, nor validated for females (Nesbitt and Argento 1984; Burke and Adams 1991; Shaw 1991a). The primary emphasis of many of these scales is on security and risk rather than need, although it is recognized that women are much less violent in prison or outside than men. In a discussion of security classification in innovative women's prisons in the US, Axon (1989 p. 72) notes that it was regarded as `a very simple undertaking for female offenders' and did not require a highly sophisticated classification system.

A few attempts to apply existing risk predictors used for men to female populations have been made. Loucks and Zamble (1994) report preliminary findings from such a study of federal offenders. Simourd and Andrews (1994) in a meta-analysis of delinquency studies found that risk factors for male and female delinquents were similar. Bonta, Pang, Wallace-Capretta (in press) report on the review of prediction studies by Gendreau et al., (1992) which demonstrated that very few studies had included female populations. Their own study applying the SIR scale (Statistical Prediction of Recidivism) used for federal parole prediction to federally sentenced women found that most women classified as low risk, and there was only a mild association with recidivism. A number of risk factors which are predictive of men's recidivism fail to do so for women. Their attempt to include factors more appropriate for female offenders also failed to produce positive results. Finally, Coulson (1993) reported on the use of the LSI (Level of Supervision Inventory) to predict recidivism for provincially sentenced women in Ontario. He concludes that it appeared to be useful for selecting high and low risk women for parole and half-way house placement. The study also demonstrated, however, the much lower average risk scores of women, compared with provincially sentenced males, in Ontario.


Assessment tools developed for women

In recognition of the need to develop tools which are more women-centred Scarth and McLean (1993) have proposed the use of women's own knowledge to aid in the development of a psychological skills and needs inventory for women. They outline many of the problems raised by traditional assessments which fail to take account of women's experience as women. Apart from a treatment needs assessment for women with substance abuse problems, also developed at the Prison For Women (Lightfoot and Lambert 1991, 1992) there would seem to be little progress so far in this area. That study does highlight the fact that many women were not diagnosed as dependant on drugs or alcohol, nor abusers, yet reported serious impairment on the day of their offence (Lightfoot and Lambert 1992) underlining the limitations of standardized classification systems.

Overall, the size of an institution, its overall goals, and the characteristics of its inmates would all seem to be important factors determining risk. The federally sentenced female population, and the new facilities will be very small compared with many State and federal institutions in the USA, as well as male penitentiaries in Canada. Because of the two year rule, a high proportion of the female population are convicted of murder or manslaughter, are likely to be first offenders, and unlikely to reoffend. Since the overall focus set out in Creating Choices is to be on the needs of the women, it is questionnable whether a classification tool developed primarily for risk prediction would be useful. In addition, as the previous section underlined, institutional behaviour, which is often used to classify risk, focusses on individual behaviour without assessing the role of the institution in an event.