The Woman Offender’s Pathway to the Criminal Justice System And Its Implications for Treatment

By: Joyce Carmouche, MSinEd

U.S. Department of Justice (Retired)

It is important to understand the woman offenders’ pathway to involvement in the  justice system. Understanding their pathway to offending behavior assists the correctional professional in providing treatment for their successful reentry to the community and for success as parents. This is how I depict the pathway for as much as 90% of justice involved women. Think of the pathway as a linear continuum from home to jail or prison:

A girl is physically, sexually, emotionally abused at home > the girl runs away > the girl is alone and scared on the street > as a means of survival she turns to some type of sex work (stripping, prostitution) either on her own or at the urging of a pimp > the stress and trauma inherent in leading this life leads to mental health deterioration and substance use/abuse > once the woman is addicted, she has difficulty making enough money to support her habit, or attracting men who will provide drugs to her > she becomes involved in petty thefts or low-level drug dealing >leading to involvement in the criminal justice system.

The War on Drugs instituted a ‘net-widening’ which made it more likely that offenders with low-level drug charges, with nothing to offer prosecutors, would wind up with a jail or prison sentence. Addicted, women street workers fit neatly into this scenario.

Most would argue that this sounds too simplistic or cut and dry. However, studies by sociologists and, in particular, feminist criminologists, such as, Meda Chesney-Lind mapped out the pathway, noted above, of a girl escaping sexual and physical abuse at home and learning to survive on the streets.

The early and on-going experiences of these women have been traumatic. The National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women states,trauma is created when an individual is exposed directly or indirectly to an overwhelming event/experience that involves a threat to one’s physical, emotional and/or psychological safety. The experience of trauma may be sudden or dramatic, or the result of gradual and unrelenting violations”. They also report that one of the most common experiences shared by women in correctional facilities is a history of trauma, which for many can be extensive.  This supports the studies which link trauma to substance abuse, mental health issues and involvement in criminal behavior. The trauma they have experienced is no different from the trauma of war, or near death experiences. Many women exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Rule violations, resistance to treatment, manipulative behavior by incarcerated women can also often be attributed to the effects of trauma.

Knowing this, treatment professionals should be aware that some prison policies and practices act as triggers; such things as, strip searches, loud authoritative masculine voices, and midnight bed checks, to name a few. In my own professional experience, I have known women offenders who would forego visits with family and loved ones in order to avoid the strip search that was a mandatory part of leaving the visiting area. In some agencies, this strip search happens on entering and leaving the visiting room.

Treatment professionals should be trained in the  use of ‘trauma-informed’ practices. They should adopt ‘universal precautions’ meaning they assume the presence of trauma in the lives of the clientele they interact with. This is especially important in working with women offenders when we know that an overwhelming majority of them have been exposed to trauma.

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