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Essay: Female crime

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“Children of offenders suffer ongoing trauma, loss and stress throughout arrest, trial, imprisonment and release.” This is the view of Tam Bailie (Scotland’s commissioner for children and young people) in 2014 when he was discussing how the lives of children whose mother’s go to prison change. Therefore, to an extent, Tam Bailie is right, female crime does have a damaging impact on the family and there is evidence from various sources to support this.

Since time began, there have been set family roles. The mother being the one who looks after the children and stays at home being the caregiver. Males on the other hand, being the ‘breadwinners’ of the family and providing for them. Studies have been conducted by Sutherland and Parsons who looked at sex role stereotypes in the family and sex role socialisation, and have found a link between females and the impact they have on their child’s future. They found that because children are constantly in the company of the female when at home, they are more bonded to them and rely on them more, and as a result, are more likely to follow the female’s actions whether that be the type of language they use or if they commit crimes. Therefore, it is evident how important the female figure is and just how much they can impact their families lives and decisions.

Female crime can have a damaging impact on the family if they are imprisoned and have to leave the family unit. Children may have relied solely on the mother at home and may not know how to act in her absence. They might feel like they can do whatever they want now that the predominant parental figure in their life is no longer present. This can result in them acting out and committing crimes. They may also feel lonely and in need of an authoritive figure to tell them what to do. This can be a reason why young people join gangs as they have a figure to look up to and people they can ‘rely on’ who are similar to them. If the mother was to go to prison, children could also be faced with social services input and they may be put into the care system. Because they have no direction, children could also stop concentrating in school and might drop out completely meaning they have no qualifications to help them succeed in life. Therefore, the effects of female imprisonment on children will be examined by comparing to the effects of male imprisonment on the children and looking to see if there are any similarities.

The reasons why females commit crimes is also an area to consider. Although females are a lot less likely to commit crimes than males, there are a moderate amount who do so. There are various reasons why females commit crimes whether that be to provide for their children, because their partner is doing it or because of their background. Therefore, the reasons why females commit crimes will also be looked at and will be compared with why males commit crimes in order to understand their motives.

Finally, we must also look at the way women are treated in prison systems. When they are imprisoned it is the job of the prison service to rehabilitate these women and making sure they remain as connected with their loved ones as possible. In the UK there are numerous ways the prison service has tried to do this, including increased visiting hours, one to one mother and baby classes, and tutoring on parenting. Therefore, the way women are treated in the prison system will also be examined in order to find out if they are given the best chance at remaining a parental figure as possible whilst in prison. This will then be compared with how women are treated in America and Finland in terms of this and what they do differently.

Chapter one: To find out the effects of male/female imprisonment on children

The impact of male and female imprisonment on children has been examined by sociologists and criminologists for years and certain patterns have been recognised. In order to understand the effects of male and females imprisonment, the current family situation must be examined firstly. If the mother and father are in a relationship and live together with the child, it could be correct to assume that if one were to be imprisoned the child would be strongly impacted by it. If the parents were no longer in a relationship and one lives away from the child, they may not be as effected if the parent who lives away was imprisoned, as they have less of a relationship with them. However, we must consider what impact each gender has individually on children when they are imprisoned. What impact does female imprisonment in particular have on the child? Does this differ from males or are children impacted in general when a parent is imprisoned? All of these questions will be answered below in order to find out the effects of male and female imprisonment on children.

Studies of prisoners’ children suggest that parental imprisonment might cause a range of different outcomes or children, including depression; anxiety; aggressive and/or delinquent behaviour; and poor grades and attendance at school. Children can become more antisocial as a result of a parental figure being imprisoned as they are not there to steer the child in the correct direction and prevent them from doing the wrong things. For example, 71% of boys who experienced parental imprisonment during their childhood had antisocial personalities by the time they were 32 (Farrington, D as cited in Journey of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, pages 1269 – 1278). So quite clearly female and male imprisonment does have a damaging impact on children as it can cause them to form delinquent personalities due to the lack of presence the parent/s have. However, parental imprisonment can also cause problems for children mentally.

When a parent is imprisoned it can damage the child’s mental state. This can be for a variety of reasons such as the fact that the parent has always been there and the family routine has then changed; they may have to become more independent and do the things they used to rely on the parent for; or simply they could be suffering from grief and loss because they miss the parent. Sabine Ferran Gerhardt, Assistant Professor at the University of Akron, Ohio for Early Childhood Development said “one of the hardest things for children to see is the disempowerment of their mothers, who are no longer viewed as an authority figure in their child’s life. When parents are disempowered, children lose the sense of authority that their parent once maintained and the ability to trust in them to take care of them.” (Baxter, S and Palm, S as cited in Mothers in Prison – Another crumbling brick in the family’s foundation, 2014). “36% of boys separated because of parental imprisonment had high levels of anxiety or depression at age 48, compared with 15% with no history of parental imprisonment of separation (Farrington, D as cited in Journey of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 1269 – 1278). Thus it is clear that when a parental figure is imprisoned it can cause the child to become emotionally and psychologically more challenging individuals. However, there are other factors which can be effected in a child such as the idea that they will be more likely to commit crimes in the future.

When a child’s mother is imprisoned, it can make the child feel as though their mother has been taken away from them. They may fail to understand why they have been sent to prison or that their mother has done something unlawful. Because of this, it can create a bad impression of the police and the prison system in the child’s mind, which, if the idea is developed and continued in adulthood, can cause them to commit crimes in the future. children of incarcerated parents are also more likely to lash out at authority figures—especially police—in the future, whom they hold responsible for taking away their mothers (Baxter, S and Palm, S as cited in Mothers in Prison – Another crumbling brick in the family’s foundation, 2014). This is further backed up by an organisation called Hope for Miami who stated that children with incarcerated parents are 5 times as likely to get in trouble with the law at some point in their lives in the USA (Eversley, M, as cited in Report: One in 14 children has had an incarcerated parent, 2016). Also, in an independent survey it was found that 91% of those asked felt children with imprisoned/ previously imprisoned mothers and fathers were more likely to go to prison themselves (Appendix 4) . So quite clearly, one effect children can become more likely to commit crimes themselves as a result of having an imprisoned mother and father due to the fact that they feel like the police and prisons have taken their parent away from them. Therefore, there are many effects on the child if the mother or father was to be imprisoned including their mental state and their relationship with the law themselves.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that both male and female imprisonment has a damaging impact on the child. There is no evidence found to prove that individually male or female imprisonment is more damaging. Instead, it is mostly the idea that a parental figure they have bonded with that has been taken away from them. The effects parental imprisonment has on children can range from depression, anxiety, socialisation issues and, of course problems with the law in the future. However, this is not the case for all children as their state after their parent’s imprisonment may result largely in the type of crime that has been committed. Some children may not show any side effects of losing their parent to prison if their crime was out of necessity, for example, a mother stealing food to feed the family. This, and the reasons why males and females commit crimes will be explained in more depth in the chapter that follows.

Chapter two: To determine the reasons why women commit crimes in comparison to males.

To determine why females commit crimes in comparison to males it must be established the differences in males and females naturally. Men tend to be more aggressive, rational and can figure out different ways of dealing with a problem. Whereas females are more talkative and have better communication skills. Females are also less physically aggressive, but fight more in other ways, such as verbal aggressiveness and gossiping. The natural mental and psychological differences between men and women are the reasons why their reasoning for crimes are different. With males being overall more aggressive, they therefore commit more aggressive crimes than females. According to a recent article about whether or not men are naturally born criminals, men commit more crimes than women – of the 84,731 people in prison in Britain, over 80,000 are male (Abrahams, J, Are Men Natural Born Criminals? The Prison Numbers Don’t Lie, Telegraph.co.uk, 2015). So quite clearly males are a lot more likely to commit criminal acts than females possibly due to their naturally more aggressive ways. However, that is not to say that females hardly ever commit crimes. In fact the number of females committing crimes has increased in recent years. In October 2009, an article in The Telegraph stated that violent crime committed by females has risen by 81% in the past decade which is something which must be taken into consideration (The Telegraph, as cited in Violent Crime by Women on the Increase, 2009.)

There are many theories which try and explain why females commit the crimes they do such as biological theories. Cowie, Cowie and Slater (1968, as cited in Moore, S Investigating Crime and Deviance, page 167) found that, on average, women deal better with things such as arguments at home, than men do. In fact, women will only commit a crime when ‘constitutional predisposing factors exist’. So quite clearly female crime can be related to biological factors such as chromosome and hormone differences to men. However, this theory has been criticised because it mixes gender roles and biological differences between men and women. Women are brought up to be a certain way and are not biologically programmed to be extremely calm all the time. Therefore, it can be gathered that women commit crimes due to biological factors. However, there are also psychological theories which could help explain why females commit crimes. Talcott Parsons (Parsons and Bales 1995, as cited in Moore, S Investigating Crime and Deviance: page 168) suggested that female crime is related to the influence of a male figure or a problem in the socialisation period. He claimed that society brings about the idea that men must be the breadwinners and with that abundance of masculinity can come deviant behaviour. Most females naturally gravitate towards their mother figure but if they don’t have that, for example being raised by a single father, they can then become deviant. So quite clearly females can commit crimes due to psychological factors like them not being brought up with an appropriate female figure. Therefore, it can be gathered that psychological theories can help explain the reasons why females commit crimes. However, there are other factors that must be taken into consideration such as financial problems.

Many females who commit crimes do so for monetary gain or because they have financial problems. Crimes such as theft; the dealing and handling of drugs; and prostitution are some of the most popular crimes females commit, and they all have one thing in common: money. In a females mind, if they were to do these crimes, they would be gaining an income and therefore will be able to live more comfortably. If they are in a desperate situation, for example, they have lost their job or are being evicted, they may have no other option but to commit these crimes to make money. According to Chapman (1980, as cited in Moore, S Investigating Crime and Deviance: Page 173) women can be pushed to commit crimes they make up the majority of the poor around the world. This is further backed up by the fact that women are more likely to live in a low income home than men: 21% compared with 19% (The Poverty Site, 2010). So quite clearly, it can be argued that females might commit crimes because they simply need the money. However, it must also be considered that some females who commit crimes for money, may do so because they are single parents and want to provide for their children.

Females naturally have extremely protective and nurturing behaviour when it comes to their children. If a female is a single parent, is unemployed and has a family to feed, shelter and clothe, they may do whatever it takes to make sure they are looked after, such as committing crimes. At least a fifth of mothers are lone parents before imprisonment compared to around 9% of the general population (Prison Reform Trust, Women in Prison, 2012.) This is further backed up by a statement from the Governor of Cornton Vale Prison who stated that the vast majority of female prisoners over the age of 21 who enter the prison are lone parents (See Appendix 3). From this evidence, it is clear that one driving force behind females committing crimes is the fact that they need to provide for their family and the only way they can do so is by acting out of the law. However, having said that, we must also consider the fact that more serious crimes are sometimes committed by females and that mental health can be attributed to the reasoning behind it.

When males or females suffer from a mental illness, they may not realise the severity of their crime or understand what they have done. A University of Oxford report on the health of 500 women prisoners, showed that: women in custody are five times from likely to have a mental health concern than women in the general population (Prison Reform Trust, Women in Prison, 2012).Thus there is a link between mental health and females who commit crimes as women in prison are more likely to suffer from a mental health condition. Similarly female prisoners are more likely to try and commit suicide when in prison with 46% of women prisoners reported having attempted suicide at some point in their lives. This is more than twice the rate of male prisoners (21%) and higher than in the general UK population amongst whom around 6% report having ever attempted suicide (Prison Reform Trust, Mental Health in Prisons, 2015). This could therefore reiterate the idea that perhaps females struggle more with mental illnesses than males, and because more women suffer from mental illnesses than males, could contribute to the reasons why they commit crimes. However, we must also shed light on the fact that males can have a big influence on females and can encourage them to commit crimes for or with them.

There are a lot of criminal cases where females or couples have committed crimes because they have been convinced to do so by their partner. Many women also commit crimes alongside their partner because they want to be accepted by them, or they have such strong feelings for them they commit crimes with them as they are ‘blinded by love’. One particular case where this was apparent was the Moors murders which were carried out by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. It became apparent after their arrest that Hindley’s involvement in the five murders was due to her love for Brady. She knew what she was doing was wrong but she went through with it because she didn’t want to say no to her lover (Gray, J, as cited in The Moors Murders: Young Couple Tortures & Kills 5 Kids, 2016). Similarly, when asked, the Governor from Cornton Vale prison expressed a huge concern in the fact that females are almost ‘charmed’ into committing crimes for their boyfriend or husband. (See Appendix 3). Therefore, it is ultimately clear that one reason why females commit crimes is because they are ‘blinded’ by the love they have for their partner and will do anything to please them. However, this can be criticised as there are a number of male murderers who were married and their spouses never committed a crime. Thus, to some extent, male influences can somewhat explain to reason why, in some cases, females commit crimes.

To conclude, there are numerous reasons why females commit crimes which differ in comparison to males. It can be established that theories developed by Cowie and Slater; as well as Parsons clearly show a link between biological and psychological factors and female crime. Along with the information gathered from the Prison Reform Trust, The Telegraph and the Governor from Cornton Vale Prison, mental health issues, monetary gain and influences from partners can also be behind the scenes factors which lead to females committing crimes. In most cases, females reasoning behind crimes are nothing similar to males as most of the time their circumstances are much different. This then leads to females having much different experiences and treatment when in prison, which will be discussed in depth in the next chapter.

Chapter Three: To find out how women are treated in the prison system in the UK and internationally

Prison is one of the worst punishments a person can go through. When females go to prison, there is one factor which differentiates them from males a vast majority of the time: they may have children. Last year, the Surveying Prisoner Crime Reduction study found six in 10 women in jail had dependent children, and a third of mothers are single parents before imprisonment (2015, as cited in Smith, L, IBTimes.co.uk Women in prison: It is equality to treat female offenders differently to males). If this is the case and they do have children to look after, what happens? What initiatives do prison services, in the UK and around the world, have in place to allow the mother to continue to be a part of her child(s) lives?

Firstly, one factor that must be considered is the growing number of babies born in prison and what initiatives are put in place in this scenario by UK and international prison services. In the UK, There has been a significant rise in the numbers of women in prison. But because so many sentences are short, the real figure is disguised and it is thought that up to 10,181 women were put behind bars last year alone. More than half of those women are mothers. (2012, as cited in Vallely, P, theindependent.co.uk, Mothers and prison: babies behind bars). The Prison Service in the UK brought about Mother and Baby Units due to the fact that babies are born in prison, in the hopes that it will allow the mother to bond with the child and form a relationship with them whilst they are still incarcerated. These units are brightly decorated, are inviting and have highly trained staff. They are much different to the actual prison they are associated with. It is thought that when babies are first born, they need the mother there to nurture them for at least the first six months (2008, Children’s Commissioner, www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk, Prison Mother and Baby Units Document). This is further backed up by an independent survey which found that 74% of those asked agree that mother and baby units are necessary for the child’s development (see Appendix 4, Q7). Thus, it is clear that mother and baby units are a good initiative put in place by the UK Prison service as it allows mother and baby to bond and form a relationship in a comfortable environment. However, many people do not agree with babies being born and spending the first weeks or months of their lives inside prison walls. David Cameron addressed this issue in 2016 expressing his views on mother and baby units. He thinks that it is disgraceful to think that so many babies are born inside prison walls and that more measures should be taken into consideration with pregnant criminals. He stated, “We’ve got to break this cycle. So I want us to find alternative ways of dealing with women prisoners with babies, including tagging, problem-solving courts and alternative resettlement units.”(2016, gov.org, PM Calls for rethink of treatment of pregnant women in prison). This is further backed up by an independent survey which showed that 61% of respondents felt that babies born in prison will impact them negatively later in life (See Appendix 4, Q6). So quite clearly there are arguments against mother and baby units as some people feel babies should be kept away from the prison environment completely, this includes during pregnancy. Therefore, the UK prison service’s initiative of Mother and Baby units is successful as it allows mother and child to form a relationship, but it means the child spends the first few months of their life inside prison walls. That being said, there are other initiatives put in place by the UK government such as parenting programmes for mothers who will continue to be guardians of their child after prison.

In the USA, the treatment of women and their relationship with their children in prison is a lot different than in the UK. Due to security measures, if a woman goes into labour in prison, they most likely give birth to their child inside prison walls. This can be very distressing for both the mother and child. If the mother is seen as dangerous, she could be handcuffed to prevent her from having too much movement when in labour. After childbirth, most states do not have an action set in place to allow mothers to have time with their child. Instead the mother usually has a few hours maximum to spend with her new born before it is taken away and given to either social services or a relative/family member (2000, as cited in Drummond, T, Time.com – “Women in Prison.”) So quite clearly, women are treated much differently than they are in the UK and the effects it could have on their children will be significant. Due to these practices involving child birth in prison in the USA, it can be argued that children could be more disadvantaged as they are a lot more likely to not have any relationship or nurturing as a new born from their mother, and are more likely to end up in care. According to an independent survey, 72% of those asked said they felt these American states should be doing a lot more to build a relationship between mother and child. Of this 72%, 100% said that parenting programmes; nurseries in prisons and family friendly visiting facilities would be a step in the right direction in the American Prison Service. So quite clearly, it could be argued that the USA are failing to establish a way to improve mother-child relationships in prison as they are not cooperating with the fact that many mothers want to be a part of their child’s life even though they are in prison. However, we must also consider the idea that some women may not be fit to parent their child in an appropriate manner and may pose a threat to the child’s wellbeing, for example being violent, drug addictions etc. Therefore, it can be argued that women in prison in the USA are not treated in the right way in terms of having the opportunity to have a relationship with their child.

Canada is thought to be one of the more advanced countries in terms of rehabilitation programmes in prisons for males and females. In particular, female offenders with children have a wide opportunity of programmes and classes they can partake in to allow them to grow a stronger relationship with their child/children. In Canada, mothers and children can participate in the Mother-Child Program which “aims to provide a supportive environment that fosters and promotes stability and continuity for the mother-child relationship, (2014, cgjsc-rcessc.uwaterloo.ca. Canada’s Mother-Child Program: Examining Its Emergence, Usage and Current State.) In this programme, children under the age of six are allowed to stay with their mothers in prison on a part time basis. It is thought that the programme will allow mother and child to form a bond whilst keeping reoffending rates down as mothers will not want to commit more crimes in order to protect their child (2014, Shingle, B. Nationalpost.com, “Canada expanding rarely used program that lets mothers live with children in minimum security prisons.”). So quite clearly, Canada’s Mother-Child programme is successful as it gives mother and child a chance to bond and form a relationship which can keep the child from having to go into care and the mother from reoffending. However, it must be considered that this programme is not widely used in Canada and there is evidence to suggest that mothers do not want to take part in the programme altogether. Howard Sapers, Canada’s ombudsman for federal prisons said that the introduction of this programme is unclear and that: “We’ve been in frequent contact with Corrections Service Canada about this issue, not just frankly about the confusion around the policy… but also about the very low participation rate.” (2014, Shingle, B. Nationalpost.com, “Canada expanding rarely used program that lets mothers live with children in minimum security prisons.) Therefore, the way women are treated in the Canadian criminal justice system is significant. It is a positive approach as it allows the mother and child to bond and live together part time. However, it has very low participation numbers which suggests that the programme is not as successful as hoped.

In conclusion, women are treated much differently in the criminal justice system around the world. In the UK and Canada, mothers are encouraged to form a relationship with their child if possible. The idea is that it will positively impact both the mother and child as it will llow allow for a more secure nurturing for the child as well as preventing mothers from reoffending in the future. However, in the USA, most states do not recognise how important the first year of bonding between mother and child is. In most cases where babies are born in prison, they are only allowed a few hours with their mother before they are sent into the hands of social services or relatives who can look after them.


To conclude, the above shows that female crime does have a damaging impact on the family to a great extent. However, in saying this, the same can be said for male crime. Female crime and imprisonment can cause adverse effects on their children including mental problems and issues with the law in the future. With that being said, the effects of male crime and imprisonment on children are extremely similar. This could be due to the fact that in the 21st century, gender roles are more mixed and mothers and fathers are more likely to be there for their child together. Research and reports by David Farrington, The Independent and USA Today have all fully supported the idea that male and female imprisonment effects the child, and rejects the idea that one gender contributes to more damaging effects than the other. The analysis of these articles and journals helped show that it is when a parent (male or female) commits a crime and is imprisoned that these effects begin to show excluding the situation of a single parent family.

Whilst looking at the effects of male and female imprisonment on the child, it was brought to attention that these effects weigh largely on the type of crime the parent committed and why they committed it, so the reasons behind male and female crimes were examined. With the information and research found by theorist such as Cowie and Slater, and Parsons it was found that there was strong evidence to prove that there are psychological and biological reasons behind female crime. Evidence from The Telegraph and The Prison Reform Trust also proved that mental health issues, monetary gain and influences from partners can also factors which lead to females committing crimes.

Lastly, the way females are treated in the criminal justice system was looked at in both the UK and internationally to prove whether or not prisons can change the way a mother parents their children, or if it can impact the child negatively. Internationally, there were mixed ideas regarding females and how their relationships with children are treated whilst in prison. In the UK, there are mother and baby units which allow the mother and child to bond and nurture whilst still being in prison. In the USA, if a mother was to go into labour in prison, they usually give birth inside prison and can be shackled to their bed to prevent them from moving. They have limited hours with the baby once it is first born, before it is taken away into the hands of a relative, guardian or social services. In Canada, there are a huge variety of parenting programmes and classes that mothers can partake in with their families to ensure that they see them regularly and continue to hold a strong bond with them.

In summary, female crime does have a damaging impact on the family. This was established through researching the effects male and female imprisonment has on children; the reasons why females commit crimes and the way females are treated in the criminal justice system. However, it can be fair to say that parental crime in general has a damaging impact on the family. In today’s society, fathers are just as involved as mothers, so the impact of them committing crimes or being imprisoned will be just as bad as it would be for mothers.


During the three chapters of this dissertation, the predominant sources of information used was emails to and from persons of interest and a questionnaire.

During the evidence gathering process, emails were sent to several persons of interest who had in depth knowledge on the topic area of female crime. Numerous organisations and individuals were contacted including The Prison Reform Trust, The governor of Cornton Vale Prison and The Scottish Prison Service. It was a guided conversation as subject areas of interest were given to the recipients to discuss. This particular source of information was good as it allowed for detailed information to be given regarding the subject area. The information was also recorded and saved for reference so it could be looked back on at a later date. However, some of the responses given strayed away from the subject areas and were unusable as evidence. Similarly, some answers were not sufficient or well detailed enough to use in this dissertation. Some informants failed to respond altogether. In general, emailing was very time consuming and it took a lot of research and consideration to see who would have had the best knowledge to help give some evidence for the topic area.

A questionnaire was also used to provide some research from the general public regarding the topic area. It gave an insight into the general publics’ perceptions and ideas behind female crime and what they think could be done to help tackle the issues surrounding it. It was very informative to have something other than a professional opinion. The questionnaire was quick and easy to create. Answers were given back quickly and there were a lot of respondents, in comparison to emails which were time consuming with limited responses. However, there was not a lot of detail given in the answers so no real analysis could be made from the research that would prove or disprove a point regarding female crime.

To sum up, both sources of information (emails and questionnaire) were valid in helping give evidence to this dissertation. Perhaps if more sources of information were used, such as a face to face interview, then even more valid information could be established that could have been used as evidence in this dissertation.

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