Essay: The social constructions of female offenders

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  • The social constructions of female offenders
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There is no doubt that each year, fewer females come into contact with the criminal justice system than their male counterparts (Covington and Bloom 2003). This consistent research finding of males committing more crime than females is known as the gender gap in offending (Heimer 2000). However, in recent years, statistics suggest that the number of females in England and Wales and the USA being sentenced has actually increased more rapidly then been seen with male offenders (REFERENCE) and in fact, this gender gap in violent offending is actually narrowing (Rennison 2009). But this increase and shift in offending is debated as to whether it reflects an actual increase in female crime or changes in the convictions of female offenders (Lauritsen, Heimer and Lynch 2009).

The dawn of the twenty first century saw a panic of girls offending in Britain (Sharpe 2012). New enormous social and cultural changes were bought to women’s live, undoubtedly affecting their lives dramatically. Immense focus in recent years within the United Kingdom (UK) has sought to address and re-balance the gender equality gap between men and women. Due to more equality now than ever between the sexes, men and women should therefore be dealt with more equally within the criminal justice system CJS, some argue (Moulds 1980). However, others believe that men and women should have differential treatment within the CJS, as there are still differences between them (REFERENCE). It has been suggested that there is a clear gender bias with regards to punishment of female offenders within the (CJS), with extensive debate about whether these biases advantage or disadvantage women (Davies, Croall and Tyrer 2005). The impact of gender on sentencing decisions has been subject to much research, both within English and American criminology.

A publication by Ann Lloyd in 1995, entitled “Doubly Deviant, Doubly Damned”, examined the bias against violent female offenders resulting in a more punitive response than male offenders. Lloyd (1995) argues that women who commit violent crimes are at high risk of being treated more harshly than violent men, especially if they fail to adhere to accepted gender stereotypes. These women who therefore do not conform, find themselves being judged not only due to the crime they have committed, but also how she has broken the unwritten rules of the way women are expected to behave (Lloyd 1995). There is much evidence to suggest that when women commit violent offences, this results in detrimental treatment, particularly within sentencing for these women, as they have violated the traditional norms of femininity (Kennedy 2005, p.20-21?).

However, research examining the role of gender within the CJS has also highlighted potential gender bias, with regards to more lenient sentencing and treatment than male offenders. Otto Pollack (1950) proposed that within the CJS, this apparent gender bias may actually work in favour of female offenders by women benefiting from the ‘chivalry’ of male criminal justice personnel (Treadwell 2006, p.95) Females may be less likely to be convicted, or may receive shorter sentences than their male counterparts (Williams 1999). There have been suggestions that this gender bias in favour of women, may be as a result of their maternal capability, a consideration that would not be taken into account for male offenders (Cavadino and Dignan 2007, p.358?).


“It is only since the feminist wave of the sixties that sexual discrimination has been considered as an issue of importance in the study of the criminal justice system and that female criminality has been looked at more thoroughly” (Goethals, Maes and Klinckhamers 1997, p. 207).

In recent years there has been a tremendous growth in literature on women offenders, defendants and prisoners, however there is still a need for more research (Morris 1987). There is still a lack of understanding on female crime and the reasons for their sentencing (REFERENCE). It has been argued by many feminist scholars that the bulk of criminologist’s attention has been focused on male offending as women, only about 30 to 40 years ago were almost completely excluded form criminological research (Renzetti and Goodstein 2001, p. vii). Whilst legislations and governments are in support of pursuing gender equality for the law abiding, questions are raised as to whether offending and deviant women are now also equal to men within the criminal justice system. This is especially debated for women who seem to violate the traditional feminine gender role and their prescribed passive maternal stereotype.


Research Question and Aims

This dissertation seeks to answer; “To what extent does the ‘Double Deviance Theory’ impact on the construction and treatment of women’s experiences in the criminal justice system?”

The research aims that have guided and shaped this dissertation and which will be outlined in greater detail throughout the following chapters include:

1. To examine if the historical depictions and stereotypes of violent women offenders are still evident today.

2. To offer a contemporary analysis of the “doubly deviant” theory to assess the criminal justice systems construction of offending women.

3. To consider if women offenders are treated different to male offenders in the criminal justice system.

Chapter Summaries

This Literature Review will focus in Chapter 1 on the social constructions of female offenders and how this ‘doubly deviant’ stereotype is created. It will also focus on the historical depiction of violent women with the emergence of these damaging female stereotypes with a case study upon Lady Macbeth and how she is deemed unfeminine by her deviant and manipulative characteristic. Chapter 2 will then consider the contemporary CJS responses to these ‘doubly deviant’ female offenders and will provide more context to Ann Lloyds “Doubly Deviant, Doubly Damned” theory. Within Chapter 3, consideration will be given to how in fact women may be treated more leniently, with regards to the chivalry thesis, but only women who have conformed to gender stereotypes. By conducting a thorough literature review it is hoped that evidence can be found to establish the extent that the ‘doubly deviance’ theory impacts on the construction and treatment of women within the CJS and the weaknesses of a system designed by men, specifically for men.

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