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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Exemplary Community Programs For Federally Sentenced Women : A Literature Review

Profile Of The Female Offender

Recent statistics document that 321 federally sentenced women are on supervised release in the community comprising approximately half of all FSW at any given time (FSWP, 1995). A further 322 women are currently serving federal sentences within Canadian institutions totalling approximately 2% of the total federal offender population (FSWP, 1995). More than half of these women are housed at Canada's only federal female prison, the Kingston Penitentiary For Women (P4W) while the others are able to complete their sentences at provincial institutions based upon Exchange of Service Agreements between the federal and provincial governments. These arrangements enable women to serve their sentences closer to home thus allowing more frequent contact with family. As well, it is surmised that arrangements for community involvement can be utilized by the women more efficiently should they be able to establish contacts in their hometowns while incarcerated. However, the reality may be that women have less access to resources while incarcerated in provincial institutions than at P4W. Programs and services available to FSW within provincial facilities are often limited compared to those offered at P4W, a dilemma which must be weighted against the benefit of having frequent familial contact. As one Aboriginal parolee stated "I only stayed there [at a provincial institution] because family ties were important to me. But there were no programs for someone serving a long term. I don't think I should have been forced to choose between a prison life and my life outside" (Task Force on FSW, 1990:7).

Slightly more than half of all federally sentenced women are between the ages of 20 and 34 years (50.2%) and most are single (67.8%) (Canada, 1993:17). They typically originate from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly Aboriginal women (Task Force on FSW, 1990:41). Concurrently, FSW experience high incidences of substance abuse, attain low levels of education and possess few marketable skills. Seventy percent of the women have, at most, some high school education (CSC pamphlet).

Just over 83% of FSW are serving sentences for their first time having been overlooked for community-based alternatives to incarceration (CSC pamphlet). This is in spite of the fact that women are generally not seen as posing a danger or risk to society. There is a modest number of women who commit violent offenses in Canada; most women who commit murder do so in the context of a domestic situation (Hatch & Faith, 1989-90:436) and are unlikely to be charged with subsequent violent offenses (Shaw et al., 1991b:21). Women tend to turn their anger and frustration inward rather than projecting violence onto others (Gavigan, 1993:228). Nevertheless, women are repeatedly denied the option of alternative measures to imprisonment. In a survey conducted by the Probation Inspectorate (1991), women were found to disproportionately receive short custodial sentences for the same offenses that men were granted community-based alternatives (NACRO, 1993:4). Windschuttle suggests that because women breach the traditional female role by committing crimes which are typically viewed as masculine behaviour, they are treated more disparately by the criminal justice system than their male counterparts (1981:33).

As with the aboriginal population as a whole, Native women are over-represented within the female prison population, comprising nearly 17% of women serving prison sentences (Canada, 1993:19). This is compared to a national total which figures Canada's entire Native population at approximately 3% (Statistics Canada, 1991). The Prairie provinces in particular tend to have an overwhelming number of Native people convicted of criminal offenses. In 1992-93, for example, Native women comprised 55.8% of the female offender population (Canada, 1993:20).

While the population of federally sentenced women is notably low, their need for programs and services remains essential. Several research studies have been completed to address the issues surrounding female criminality which identify the risks and needs of female offenders.