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Examining the Criminal Justice System Response to Gender

Javdani, S., N. Sadeh, and E. Verona. (2011). Gendered social forces: A review of the impact of institutionalized factors on women and girls’ criminal justice trajectories. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 17(2):161–211.

By Lori Whitten, Staff Writer, RTI International, Rockville, MD

Gender is an individual characteristic that influences one’s behavior and the reactions of others. But it is also part of the social framework, with nThis photograph shows three young adults in business attire facing the camera. Front and center is a young Caucasian woman, possibly a Latina. On the left, slightly behind her, is a young African-American woman, and on the right, a Caucasian man. orms and power dynamics. These aspects influence how larger social institutions—including the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems—respond to and have an impact on an individual’s behavior. Scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have adopted this social framework view, called the structuralist approach, to examine an issue that has drawn much attention: the increasing arrest rates for girls and women during a period in which rates have been stable or decreasing for males.

Although others have examined the individual characteristics that may be linked with increasing female antisocial behavior and crime, a team led by Shabnam Javdani, Ph.D. studied the policies and practices that affect arrest and sentencing decisions for girls and women. They found that patterns of increasing female arrest rates are not corroborated by evidence that women and girls are actually committing antisocial behaviors, particularly violent crimes, at increasing rates. This discrepancy suggests that institutional and social policies, in part, are influencing the increasing arrest rates among girls and women, which may affect individual risk factors and pathways to criminal behavior.

To examine the contribution of institutional responses to increasing female arrest rates, Dr. Javdani, her faculty advisor Edelyn Verona, Ph.D., and Naomi Sadeh, Ph.D., conducted a systematic literature review of empirical evidence from the fields of psychology, criminology, and sociology. They searched databases used in these fields for all abstracts of articles related to the impact of institutional responses on women’s and girls’ criminal and juvenile justice experiences. From these abstracts, the researchers selected all articles that provided empirical data on this subject, which resulted in a total of 59 scholarly papers. Within this set of papers, Javdani and colleagues analyzed four types of justice system responses to females, and found that gender influenced:

  1. Processing (prior to trial actions such as booking and setting bail) and sentencing decisions—It is generally accepted that the justice system treats girls and women—particularly first-time offenders—more leniently than boys and men. However, girls and women who are repeat offenders or who commit serious offenses, particularly those who commit crimes that deviate widely from gender norms (e.g., child abandonment), are punished more severely than male peers.
  1. Relabeling and responding to youth status offenses—behaviors for which youth, but not adults, can be arrested (e.g., running away, underage drinking, and truancy)—Status offences represent a higher proportion of girls’ arrest rates than those for boys. A policy intended to reduce arrests for these offenses—the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) 1974—led to the relabeling of some status offenses as various types of “assaults.” For example, girls who are aggressive in volatile domestic situations (e.g., physically defending themselves) and run away could be charged with assault (see number 4). During this same period, girls’ rates of other violent crimes did not increase, suggesting the influence of system response. Relabeling caused some youth status offenses and behaviors to be formally redefined as crimes. The researchers note that the JJDPA policy shift was generally not accompanied by alternatives to incarceration. Additionally, a girl charged with a status offense can be re-arrested or incarcerated for violation of a court order (e.g., breaking curfew), which also contributes to the increasing female arrest rates.
  1. Arrests for drug offenses—The “war on drugs” and its policies—for example, minimum and mandated sentencing practices—increased the incarceration rate of women more than that of men, despite an actual decrease in female drug use during this period. Research indicates that women are usually engaged in less severe types of drug crimes than men. With the toughening of laws for drug possession and low-level distribution, women are now disproportionately involved in the justice system.

  1. Dual- and pro-arrest policies for domestic violence incidents, which require the arrest of both parties and encourage arrests rather than nonintervention—Girls and women often engage in violence in self-defense (e.g. fight back when assaulted) and frustration-related aggression in response to abusive domestic situations (e.g., attack mother’s boyfriend who has been violent); although the picture is complex, men’s violence is usually linked with broader patterns of coercion and dominance. Complete enforcement of dual- and pro-arrest policies during domestic altercations may ultimately hurt females more than males. In addition to increasing women’s arrest rates, these policies can hurt women in other ways too. For example, women with criminal records may be less likely to seek police support in response to partner abuse for fear of dual arrest, which may jeopardize their safety.

In light of their findings, Javdani and colleagues recommend policy and practice changes. For example, they recommend a legislative mandate for treatment alternatives to incarceration—particularly interventions that address substance use and trauma—for girls and women who commit nonviolent or less severe crimes. Such treatments are available but not widely implemented. The authors also suggest integrating drug and domestic violence courts into the justice system to a much greater extent. Some states have already implemented such courts—and the specialized training they require—to address the problems underlying crime rather than continually moving individuals into and out of incarceration. Although more research is needed to test the effectiveness of such courts, the authors argue that alternatives to incarceration for drug abuse and domestic violence would likely improve the outcomes for women and men.

For more information contact Dr. Shabnam Javdani at the Department of Applied Psychology, New York University, New York,

Posted Fri, Oct 5 2012 4:03 PM by Tracey Vessels


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