Women are one of the criminal justice system’s fastest growing populations. In the past decade, the number of women incarcerated in federal and state prisons has increased by 22 percent, while the number of women on probation and parole has risen 10 percent. Although women comprise only about 17 percent of the total criminal justice population, the implications of their criminal justice involvement are far reaching—as their children, family members, and neighborhoods can experience their absence acutely.
The rate of unsuccessful reentry for women is remarkably high, especially given the relatively low level of public safety risk this demographic group presents. Approximately 60 percent of women released from incarceration were re-arrested and nearly 30 percent returned to prison within three years of release—in most cases for technical violations rather than for new crimes.
To reduce the number and improve the outcomes of women involved in the criminal justice system, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), in partnership with the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), has established the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women (NRCJIW), a technical assistance, training, and resource center for criminal justice professionals.
Many of the NRCJIW’s resources are salient for policymakers and practitioners interested in improving outcomes for incarcerated women transitioning to the community. Below are some of our key findings regarding justice-involved women returning from prison and jail. (These findings are excerpted from the NRCJIW’s document, “Ten Truths that Matter When Working With Justice-Involved Women,” available at: http://cjinvolvedwomen.org/sites/all/documents/Ten_Truths_Brief.pdf.
Over the past few decades we have witnessed a growing body of research on women in the criminal justice system; this research includes insights into women’s pathways to crime, risk to reoffend, and criminogenic needs (among other topics). Practitioners are now well poised to draw from and apply this research to current reentry practices in an effort to increase the public safety outcomes and well-being of women, their families, and their communities.
- The majority of women present a low risk to public safety. They typically enter the criminal justice system for non-violent, drug, and/or property-related crimes. They are less likely than men to commit acts of violence and aggression in prison, and when released from incarceration recidivate at lower rates.
- Women have unique interventions needs. Women exhibit a greater variety of complex intervention and support needs than men, which must be addressed in order to promote successful reentry into the community. Women are more likely to experience poverty, sexual abuse, co-occurring disorders, and other health concerns. A large proportion of justice-involved women have abused substances or engaged in criminal behavior while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Fewer vocational skills, underemployment, and employment instability are more common among justice-involved women than among men.
- Women’s engagement in criminal behavior is often related to their relationships, connections, and disconnections with others. Theories of female development consistently emphasize the importance of relationships in women’s lives—both in shaping their identities and in contributing to their sense of self-worth. This can create difficulties for women involved in the criminal justice system for several reasons. First, exposure to dysfunctional and abusive relationships in childhood elevates the risk for future victimization and the perpetration of violence. Second, women will often commit crimes to maintain a relationship regardless of the outcome. For example, some women will override their personal values and beliefs in the commission of a crime to meet the needs of their children or to demonstrate loyalty to a significant other. Criminal justice programs and interventions should encourage women to maintain a desire for healthy connections, while providing them with opportunities to learn new ways of connecting and relating to others.
- Women’s programs are generally based on research about men. The increasing number of women entering the criminal justice system, coupled with a growing body of research on this population, have drawn attention to justice-involved women and signaled the need for gender-responsive policies, procedures, and services. Programs and services that support the reentry of women must adequately meet their unique needs. For example, they should provide vocational/educational training to assist them in earning a livable wage, offer safe housing options to ensure they are not further victimized by the men in their lives, and provide services that assist them in achieving successful family reunification.
- Gender-informed assessment tools are more predictive of women’s likelihood to recidivate. Research indicates that gender-informed tools achieve better results with women than gender-neutral tools. Gender-responsive classification and assessment tools are now available that capture both gender-neutral factors (e.g., criminal history and antisocial attitudes) which are associated with recidivism among women and men, and gender-responsive factors that are specifically linked to outcomes for women. Gender-informed tools also account for women’s assets, or strengths, that play a protective role and mitigate against the risk of negative outcomes.
- Many justice-involved women are also mothers. Over 66,000 women incarcerated nationwide are mothers of minor children. Over the past two decades, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled, up 131 percent. Minimal contact during incarceration, barriers to regaining custody or parental rights, limited outside support for child rearing, and financial hardship contribute to considerable stress among incarcerated mothers. Research indicates that such stress can result in the individual having difficulty adjusting to the institution and results in his rates of recidivism. Therefore, connecting and/or reunifying incarcerated mothers with their children are critical for successful reentry. Programs and services that promote routine and quality contact with children and other family members and supports, facilitate effective parenting skills, and support family reunification play a key role in successful reentry outcomes.
- Women are more successful when staff are knowledgeable and skilled in gender-responsive approaches. While there are a number of gender-informed programs which are beginning to report positive outcomes, all correctional staff who work with women must utilize a comprehensive and coordinated case management approach to achieve successful outcomes. Staff should be knowledgeable and understand the implications of the research on evidence-based and gender-informed practices including the following: targeting interventions, dosage, and intensity based on risk level; understanding the importance of developing professional working relationships with women; having the skills necessary to engage them appropriately; and recognizing women’s strengths and mobilizing their personal and social supports.
The NRCJIW website provides a wealth of information on the issues faced by women offenders and best practices in working with this population.
reprinted from the National Reentry Resource Center