Understanding the Female Offender

Understanding the Female Offender

Elizabeth Cauffman

Summary
Although boys engage in more delinquent and criminal acts than do girls, female delinquency
is on the rise. In 1980, boys were four times as likely as girls to be arrested; today they are only
twice as likely to be arrested. In this article, Elizabeth Cauffman explores how the juvenile
justice system is and should be responding to the adolescent female offender.

Cauffman begins by reviewing historical trends in arrest rates, processing, and juvenile justice
system experiences of female offenders. She also describes the adult outcomes commonly
observed for female offenders and points out that the long-term consequences of offending for
females are often more pronounced than those for males, with effects that extend to the next
generation. She also considers common patterns of offending in girls, as well as factors that may
increase or decrease the likelihood of offending. She then reviews what is known about effec-
tive treatment strategies for female offenders.

Female delinquents have a high frequency of mental health problems, suggesting that effective
prevention efforts should target the mental health needs of at-risk females before they lead to
chronic behavior problems. Once girls with mental health problems come into the juvenile jus-
tice system, says Cauffman, diverting them to community-based treatment programs would not
only improve their individual outcomes, but allow the juvenile justice system to focus on cases
that present the greatest risk to public safety.

Evidence is emerging that gender-specific treatment methods can be effective for female
offenders, especially when treatment targets multiple aspects of offenders’ lives, including fam-
ily and peer environments. But it is also becoming clear that female offenders are not a homo-
geneous group and that treatment ultimately should be tailored to suit individual needs defined
more specifically than by gender alone.

Despite myriad differences between male and female offending, many of the primary causes
of offending, says Cauffman, are nevertheless similar. The most effective policies for reducing
juvenile crime, she argues, will be those that foster development in a safe and nurturing envi-
ronment throughout childhood. Cauffman concludes that female offenders are likely to require
continued support long after their direct involvement with the juvenile justice system.

www.futureofchildren.org

Elizabeth Cauffman is an associate professor in psychology and social behavior at the University of California–Irvine.

VOL. 18 / NO. 2 / FALL 2008 119

S
Elizabeth Cauffman

ince the inception of the juvenile in response to the growing share of females
justice system, policies and prac- in the population of juvenile offenders may
tices regarding juvenile offending vary, depending on whether the focus is on
have focused on the behavior, diagnosis, prognosis, prevention, or treat-
treatment, and outcomes of a ment. In this article, my goal is to summarize
population heavily dominated by males. The what research has to say about these inter-
lion’s share of research on offending has related areas, what policy implications can be
focused on males as well. Such an emphasis inferred when sufficient evidence exists, and
makes good sense, given that males have his- what additional research is required when
torically accounted for a far greater share of sufficient evidence is lacking.
offenses than females and for an even greater
share of violent offenses in particular. In such I begin with a review of historical trends in
a world, a relative lack of knowledge about arrest rates, processing, and juvenile justice
female offending behavior is not surprising. system experiences of female offenders. I
also describe the adult outcomes commonly
Recent changes in the prevalence of female observed for female offenders, which under-
offending and the proportion of females score the motivation for pursuing improved
in the care of the juvenile justice system policy approaches to female offending. I next
have led many to wonder whether histori- consider common trajectories of offending
cally based assumptions and approaches to in girls, as well as factors that may increase
juvenile crime need to be reconsidered. In or decrease the likelihood of offending. I
a culture in which men are from Mars and then review what is known about effective
women are from Venus, it is tempting to leap treatment strategies for female offenders
straight to the conclusion that if the juvenile and what can be reasonably inferred. Finally,
justice system is now dealing with a sizable I summarize the ways in which current
proportion of female offenders, then some- research findings about female offenders can
thing must be done to make the system improve policy and practice, as well as the
more responsive to their presumably gender- areas in which further research is needed
specific needs. But is such a conclusion really before definitive conclusions can be drawn.
so obvious? Medical research is rife with
examples of diseases that infect men and Trends in Juvenile Arrest Rates
women at different rates and through differ- Both official records and self-reports confirm
ent mechanisms, but for which the pre- that males engage in more delinquent and
scribed treatment is the same, regardless of criminal acts than do females.1 This gender
gender. For such diseases, one might employ difference in offending patterns is observed
gender-specific prevention or detection both nationally and internationally.2 Although
protocols, despite gender-neutral treatment official records tend to underreport crime,
methods. Other diseases may manifest them- they nevertheless provide a baseline indica-
selves differently in males and females and tion of juvenile justice system involvement.
thus require gender-specific treatment According to the Federal Bureau of Inves-
as well. tigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR),
females accounted for 29 percent of all
Analogously, answers to the question of juvenile arrests in 2003. Proportionally more
whether policy and practice should change girls were arrested for certain offenses, such
1 20 T H E F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N

Ages 10–17. D. 18 / NO. with male arrest rates rising 75 gradually. Since the mid-1990s. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report (Washington. Office of Justice Programs. D. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report (Washington. Understanding the Female Offender as running away from home (59 percent) and percent. but most other types of arrests are with male arrest rates falling below their 1980s more common for boys. as much. 1980–2003 1. because female arrest rates juvenile arrests for violent crime increased increased more sharply and then fell more significantly.3 As shown in figure 1.C. Department of Justice. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Overall. 2006). Breakdown of Female Contribution to Juvenile Violent Arrest Rates. Department of Justice. Snyder and Melissa Sickmund.: U. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.S. 2 / FALL 2008 121 . Snyder and Melissa Sickmund. the share of female juvenile arrests percent and female rates rising almost 150 grew from 20 percent to 29 percent between Figure 1. percent). arrest rates for prostitution and commercialized vice (69 violent crimes among juveniles have fallen. 1980–2003 Percent 25 20 Aggravated assault 15 Violent crime index 10 Robbery Murder 5 0 1981 1983 1985 1987 1989 1991 1993 1995 1997 1999 2001 2003 Source: Howard N. Figure 2. 2006).: U.C.000 Individuals. Male and Female Juvenile Arrests per 100. VOL.000 800 Male 600 400 200 Female 0 1981 1983 1985 1987 1989 1991 1993 1995 1997 1999 2001 2003 Source: Howard N. levels and female rates declining about half between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. Office of Justice Programs.S.

) Although both female juvenile arrest rates suggest that sources indicate general stability in the gen- girls are becoming more violent. the 1 22 T H E F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N . Of the 1 percent of youth and the National Crime Victimization Survey transferred to adult court. assaults. only 7 percent of (NCVS) to determine whether the changes those are female. Trends in Processing of burglary. as shown in figure 2. Increases in female arrest accompanying the progress of the women’s rates for violent offenses may therefore be liberation movement have “masculinized” due. once safe to conclude that there is some variation arrested. If petitioned. it is indisputable that the of females’ contribution to the violent crime juvenile justice system is handling a rapidly index. aggravated assault. boys are more likely to these arrest statistics. although der gap for homicide and sexual assault. But charged)—63 percent compared with 54 analysts cannot agree on how to interpret percent. they are more likely to be petitioned in the structural forces shaping the violent (the juvenile court equivalent of being offending rates of females and males. small (less than 1 percent). to net-widening policies. still dominate the delinquency caseloads. growing share of girls.5 The female crimes. and simple female juvenile offenders tried as an adult is assault using both the UCR arrest statistics even smaller.6 The study youth waived to criminal court is extremely compared the 1980–2003 trends in homicide.8 However. whereas NCVS data come down from four times as likely in 1980. directly from crime victims and thus provide an indication of criminal trends independent Changes in self-reported offending and in of changes in agency policy. although boys were attributable to behavior or to policy. Regardless of whether increased remained relatively stable between 1980 arrest rates represent a true increase in and 2003. compared with males or a policy shift toward from 15 percent to 24 percent.4 Consequently. at least in part. motor vehicle theft. Because property offending (for example. agency records. female behavior and thus produced a greater such as more aggressive policing of low-level proclivity for physical aggression. but the share of female arrests for violent behavior among female adolescents aggravated assault increased substantially.7 Although the share of nal justice policy and practice. and the increasingly common reclas- share of juvenile arrests for some types of sification of simple assaults as aggravated violent crimes. the interpretation of arrest data is complicated NCVS data did not show the rise in female- by variations in policy. and arson) Juvenile Offenders for males and females changed in similarly Male juvenile offenders are not only more distinct patterns during this time. the share of sexual assault. such as robbery and murder. and appears arrest rather than alternative treatment of to be a primary factor in the overall increase violent females. Some have argued to-male arrests for criminal assaults indicated that the changes in gender-role expectations by the UCR data. it seems likely than females to be arrested but. pared with 19 percent. boys are now (UCR data come from law enforcement about twice as likely as girls to be arrested. a study by be adjudicated (the equivalent of being found Darrell Steffensmeier and several colleagues guilty)—63 percent compared with 60 argues that the statistical shift in aggressive percent—and eventually to receive residential offending among females may be nothing placement as a sanction—27 percent com- more than an artifact of changes in crimi. For example.Elizabeth Cauffman 1980 and 2003.

girls are treated processing. racial differences seem “masculine” or in need of protection. As with gender differences in legal variables are controlled.9 stages. prevalence of cases involving girls increased similarly to boys in the early stages of court 92 percent between 1985 and 2002. that boys were treated more with race. girls receive lighter sentences. young white males. while the processing but more harshly in the later caseload for boys increased only 29 percent. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. harsher ones. however.: U. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report (Washington. whereas the sentencing of while Donna Bishop and Charles Frazier female offenders does not vary meaningfully found. young black male defendants were less likely to file charges against female receive significantly harsher sentences than drug offenders than against male offenders. however. Snyder and Melissa Sickmund. Percent of Residents Remaining in Placement after Detention. than boys. Understanding the Female Offender Figure 3. Department of Justice. 2 / FALL 2008 123 . 2006). notes that once adjudication. Office of Justice Programs. with some studies suggesting that ing seriousness of the offenses involved. D. 18 / NO.S. 2003 Percent 100 80 60 40 Male 20 0 Female 0 30 60 90 120 150 180 210 240 270 300 330 360 Days since admission Source: Howard N.13 punitively than girls for delinquency offenses and that girls were less likely than boys to Trends in Experiences in the receive a sentence involving incarceration. the direction VOL. These conflicting Analysts have also begun to examine the findings have led to debate about whether influence of race and ethnicity on juvenile the system is generally more lenient (more case processing and the ways in which racial “chivalrous”) with girls or more punitive with and ethnic differences vary with gender. other studies.10 Juvenile Justice System Such studies suggest that the system treats Boys and girls also tend to have different ex- girls as less criminally dangerous than boys.12 Earlier studies pointing toward more “chivalrous” treatment of girls may thus have The sentencing applied to females varies failed to consider differences in the underly- greatly. Cecilia to matter less for female defendants.11 periences in the juvenile justice system after Other research. them because they are deemed either too Taken as a whole. similarly.C. For Saulters-Tubbs found that district attorneys example.

21 do boys. parts (who need not be as “troubled” to engage in illegal behavior and who need not Youth who enter the juvenile justice system appear as “troublesome” to be detained). a variety of psychiatric problems. with males staying longer The observed gender differences in aggres- than females (see figure 3). A substantial body of Female Offending research indicates that regardless of race and The negative impact of female offending age.22 It may also be that In fact. for example. detained female offenders may explanations. more mentally disturbed girls than Child Behavior Checklist–Youth Self Report) boys may engage in delinquent behavior. they pose significant challenges to than boys. girls to detention and that those sent to one study found that institutionalized girls detention therefore have the most serious are more violent than boys toward staff. female delinquency itself is a symptom of and Debra Pepler found that the underlying significant mental health problems. than males. A review In a study of serious “deep-end” offenders. externalizing disorders than girls.Elizabeth Cauffman of some experiential differences is unclear.15 sion and mental health symptoms among incarcerated youth have several possible In addition. For example. Joanne Belknap community youth. a recent study using dysfunctional and violent relationships. among high-risk girls differs from both that Additional filtering out of all but the most for girls in normative settings and that for visibly troubled girls by police and judges boys in both normative and high-risk set. Candice Odgers. It may be. girls who are be predicted on the basis of gender or setting detained spend more time in detention than alone. For example.14 More recent data. Marlene Moretti. have high rates of mental health problems. however. enforcers and judges are less likely to send terparts within the system.16 behavioral problems. Accord- structure of aggression (as measured by the ingly. that law be more aggressive than their male coun. girls growing share of the population of incarcer- generally exhibit more internalizing disorders ated youth. female offenders have higher rates of extends well beyond the immediate conse- mental health problems.18 These findings. both internalizing quences of the behavior itself and the cost of and externalizing. and less stable matched sample of community and detained work histories than among non-delinquent 1 24 T H E F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N . could understandably result in a population tings. Because female offenders make up a rapidly Among non-delinquent populations. poor common measures and a demographically educational achievement.19 juvenile justice system intervention. than male offenders.20 Moreover. sug- gests the opposite. do not extend to juvenile Consequences of justice populations. youth found that gender differences were with different studies coming to different greater among detained youth than among conclusions. however. of twenty studies on the adult lives of antiso- females exhibited both more externalizing cial adolescent girls found higher mortality problems and more internalizing problems rates.17 Girls who enter the juvenile justice of detained females with significantly higher system may differ fundamentally from both levels of disturbance than their male counter- male offenders and female non-offenders. with detained girls having found that although boys are more likely more symptoms of mental illness than would to be sentenced to detention. while boys generally exhibit more correctional systems.

24 there is a link between assuming adult David Hawkins. females were consistently more likely to have initiated physical aggression than Females who exhibit early-onset (by age males. including violence home and against family members. 2 / FALL 2008 125 . data from the Oregon Youth and Couples offender females. According to measures of self. antisocial lead to medical treatment.40 Such mating and reproductive tenden- thirty-two. that elicits fear. by age thirty-two.28 Consequently.33 The the problems were poorer physical health and marital relationships of female offenders may more symptoms of mental illness. problems than their male counterparts. self-defense. for females.and predicts school dropout. percent of these early-onset persistent female adolescent antisocial behavior is supplanted offenders had. Understanding the Female Offender girls. Adolescent-onset women Antisocial women tend to reproduce at a were less likely than early-onset women to younger age and most often with an antisocial experience problems with violence at age mate.26 Among linked to increased drug use and crime. behavior typically wanes during adulthood.38 Such findings for females are notable seven) persistent offending are more likely because among males.30 For example. to suffer from a wide variety of problems For some female offenders.23 Chronic problem behavior during Regardless of gender.8 percent) and children (41.25 Terrie Moffitt and several fact. to have lower occu- and that cannot always be explained as pational status. and victimization by. as emotional disturbance and depression.31 For males.27 Data from the Ohio Seri- partner abuse. partners. more frequent job changes.35 In such relationships. women tend. adolescents with a childhood has been linked with alcohol and history of antisocial behavior are more likely drug abuse in adulthood. as well as with other to marry people who are involved in crime or mental health problems and disorders. engaged in in adulthood by violent behavior within the one or more violent acts. later in life.7 percent).39 toward partners (44. 75 appears that. women are often victims Data collected over a period of years show of abusive partners. marriage is than girls without such a diagnosis. such as marriage and child- Miller have shown a similar link between rearing.8 come to similar conclusions: antisocial percent of incarcerated females graduate women inflict abuse that is serious enough to from high school. 18 / NO.37 According to observational and greater reliance on welfare than non. female offenders evidence of high dropout rates among matched or exceeded male offenders’ rates of aggressive girls. cies interact to leave young antisocial mothers VOL. adolescent antisocial than other girls to engage in antisocial be. and desisting from crime. Richard Catalano. but also often perpetrate that antisocial behavior among young people abuse. at least for female offenders. as well adulthood have more general relationship as violence toward. It havior at age thirty-two. and Janet responsibilities.29 studies.36 Several different studies ous Offender Study indicates that only 16. such who exert an antisocial influence. but this conduct disorder among girls and adult pattern is less common among females.34 Antisocial girls facing the transition to young social assistance. the inverse is often the case: colleagues found that girls diagnosed with marriage to an antisocial mate reinforces conduct disorder were more likely as adults antisocial behaviors throughout adulthood. and there is ample partner-reported violence. reliance on be typified by conflict and instability.32 In substance abuse.

41 of delinquency. and coercive (hostile) parenting “finished. differences in the age of onset tend to be most socioeconomic disadvantage. who face are younger than males are. I now turn my attention tions of male and female offenders is unclear. and the ultimate outcomes (Applicability of this result to broader popula- of such offending. the age of fifteen. finding that the average duration of offending was 4. careers scores the importance of attempting to miti. males tend to have longer antisocial biological fathers (because of criminal careers than females. while less serious problem Several studies have linked a history of behaviors. compared with ten years for the males. the observed of criminal careers had increased (to 5.9 Taken as a whole. these research findings years for females.Elizabeth Cauffman and their children with inadequate social. A long- lowed by female offenders tend to increase term study by Roger Tarling followed a sam- the odds that their children will follow in their ple of male and female offenders who were footsteps. the long. have less gender-differentiated parenting. however. gender increased risks of pregnancy complications. and 7. relationship pronounced for serious or aggressive types violence. Because it is assortative mating).42 Particularly troubling are data progressions. anyone.” convincing evidence about the style. for females and 9. and compromised parenting skills. pass Duration on at least three risk factors to their offspring: On average.) tion that follows).6 years impact on the subsequent generation under. to what is known about how girls get into because the males were chosen on the basis trouble in the first place.47 indicate that for female offenders. and financial support. duration of criminal careers is sparse.48 A study that examined the criminal careers of the sisters and wives of Trajectories of Offending Behavior life-course-persistent male offenders found Having reviewed trends in female offending that the women’s careers averaged eight patterns. such as drug and alcohol-related maternal conduct disorder with unresponsive offenses. prenatal exposure to difficult to assess when a criminal career is nicotine.7 years for males). subsequent interactions with the years.45 Notably. but also in the developmental 1 26 T H E F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N . remained significantly shorter for females gate the effects of female offending. it is particularly problematic for early finds that females begin offending when they and chronic female offenders. born in 1958 through age thirty-one. Developmental Pathways Age of Onset Important gender differences exist not only in Some studies indicate that both boys and girls the typical progressions of offending behavior. A follow-up of the same subjects nine years term prognosis is even poorer than it is for later found that although the average length male offenders.4 years for males. tend to begin their antisocial careers around as just noted.43 The most common trajectories fol.46 suggesting that mothers with a history of aggression or conduct disorder. whereas the trajectories of offending (in this section) as females were chosen on the basis of their well as risk and protective factors (in the sec. or both. than for males. including typical of their long-term criminality. justice system. Moreover. While early onset differing by no more than six months parenthood can pose many challenges for across genders. relationships with the males. with the average age of emotional.44 Other research.

with A complicating factor in the study of antiso- girls outgrowing such behavior more quickly cial characteristics over long periods (for than boys. females. example. Girls are less likely is that the measures used do not always than boys to be physically aggressive in gen. As boys and girls entered patterns with those of both adolescent-limited adolescence. Boys were more physically between childhood aggression and subse- aggressive than girls during childhood. be either adolescent-limited or showed fewer clear links between childhood life-course-persistent and that the relative aggression and offending during adolescence. the trajectories of aggression and life-course-persistent male offenders. Some observers adolescence. but by adolescence. these behaviors evolve over time in strongly gender-dependent ways. For likely than boys to direct aggression at family example. Frick. VOL. in physical aggression. appear to be assessing the same underlying eral. problem behavior Studies find that aggressive behavior in the tended to continue from childhood into latter typically begins early. during physical aggression and other problem mid-adolescence.54 girls differ little. however. female persistence may be a very early. Such differences emerge offending. although the typical consequence of different and less overtly disruptive behaviors of preschool boys and criminal behavioral precursors. 2 / FALL 2008 127 .52 Early later age in girls than it does in boys. but the onset of aggression. they become more construct throughout the entire period. as well as at and several colleagues. other adolescent-onset aggression in girls (com- studies have also found that female adolescent pared with childhood-onset) indicates that offending was much more difficult to predict persistent delinquency simply manifests at a than male adolescent offending. generally theory. Understanding the Female Offender course of aggression. or it may indicate gender differences have argued that the relative prevalence of in trajectories of offending. however. from childhood through adulthood) ther differences emerge.55 behaviors during childhood to predict violent and nonviolent offending outcomes in Another explanation for the lack of clear links adolescence.57 In aggression is a robust correlate of adolescent Persephanie Silverthorn and Paul Frick’s aggression among males but a much less model. Silverthorn. Notably.53 Such findings suggest that delinquent behavior in girls is delayed by the although ongoing aggression and offending more stringent social controls imposed on are the hallmarks of persistent male them before adolescence. in a recent study by Candice Odgers members and romantic partners. the measure of familiar females. fur.51 scarcity of early-onset aggression in females This difference may be attributable to low indicates that they are generally less likely to base rates of offending outcomes among follow the latter pathway. suggesting that the latent several colleagues examined the evolution of trait being assessed changed. girls and boys are influenced by similar effective predictor of adolescent female risk factors during childhood. Girls.50 conduct disorder symptoms remained stable for males from age seven through twenty-six In a detailed investigation using data from six but remained stable for females only from sites and three countries. For example.49 Starting in middle childhood. for girls. Lisa Broidy and age seven to fifteen. For boys. but quent offending among females has emerged their trajectories of aggression otherwise from comparisons of female offending looked similar. especially in cases of early have argued that female offenders can.56 Others. 18 / NO. began to diverge.

because and early adolescence and having an increased unlike in boys (for whom persistent offending risk for continued antisocial behavior. Source: Asha Goldweber. they also report potential future problems.60 In commonly shows outward signs during child- addition. continuity of than adolescent-onset males in their early risk offending for such girls may be stronger than exposure. these findings suggest that studies have identified groups of early-onset persistent offending among females may females as well.59 Other recent Taken as a whole. they are particularly salient for females. begin to act antisocially in childhood. However. 1 28 T H E F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N .58 Norman White and Alex Piquero that among comparable boys and that such similarly conclude that late-onset females early problem behavior in girls should be exhibit constellations of risk similar to those of considered a significant warning sign of early-onset males. It is thus more difficult to of offending that persisted into adolescence differentiate between the two pathways solely Figure 4.” in The Development of Persistent Criminality.62 evidence that some girls did.Elizabeth Cauffman and Richard Reynolds report evidence from a and that this pattern was similar to boys of sample of seventy-two incarcerated youth that the same age. Lisa Broidy. sometimes not of seven and fifteen displayed an early-onset until adolescence. groups of girls exhibiting chronically high but that it is harder to distinguish from levels of antisocial behavior across childhood adolescent-limited offending in girls. and Elizabeth Cauffman. forthcoming). in fact. “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Persistent Female Offending: A Review of Theory and Research. Odgers and several colleagues found hood). persistent offending in girls surfaces that 7. Savage (Cambridge University Press. Gender-Specific and Gender-Invariant Risk Factors for Offending ADHD Low cortisol levels MALES Low resting heart rate FEMALES Early pubertal maturation Neuropsychological impairments Lower levels Co-morbid mental health problems Adversarial of MAOA Lower levels of empathy interpersonal genotype Heightened sensitivity to rewards/ stimulation relationships Dysfunctional families/antisocial socialization Fight or flight EEG brain Harmful pre/post-natal biological experiences asymmetries Poor parental monitoring R > L frontal Early interpersonal victimization activation Negative temperament Deviant peers Poverty Impulsivity Low IQ Note: Although the items in bold in the center of the diagram are relevant risk factors for both males and females. edited by J. Two studies have identified be more common than was first believed.61 Other studies suggest that supports the contention that adolescent-onset although strongly aggressive behavior in girls females more closely resemble early-onset before the age of seven is rare.5 percent of all girls between the ages across a wider range of ages.

example. such as excessive androgen to identify and assist them at a young age production.” to explain gender differences in aggressive using social interactions to protect against behavior.69 Additionally.63 Several studies. Biological in contrast. exposure to synthetic androgens. Exposure to high levels of testos. those girls ful situations. Risk and Protective Factors while antisocial males exhibit no asymmetry at Males and females tend to share many of all. as is more commonly them are particularly salient or even unique observed in normative girls. including persistent with boys having greater right frontal activa- behavioral and emotional problems that are tion and girls having greater left frontal often more detrimental than those encoun. threats. can combine In sum. these risk factors suggest that antisocial girls may not exhibit tend to occur in highly correlated clusters. however. are most likely to begin offending. efforts development.66 stress. Because exists at the level of basic brain biology. to females. For these girls impose significant costs on society. have ior in both males and females. Ironically. and congenital adrenal hyperplasia. certain of left hemisphere. these brains. could yield considerable benefits.65 In addition. many of which overlap. In contrast. but males appear to be more likely to engage in fight or flight behaviors. for example. lower resting heart rates cence is a risk factor for both male and female VOL. but has been linked Victimization with aggressive behavior in both males and Victimization during childhood or adoles- females. the offender’s adulthood. the enhanced verbal abilities or emotion Though there are numerous putative risk regulation associated with dominance of the factors. and on their children. tend to react with behaviors more Biological risk factors have often been cited accurately described as “tend and befriend.68 observed a small group of very young girls with severe problem behavior who persist Evidence of gender-specific risk factors also in such behavior into adolescence. some analysts have noted an apparent “gender paradox”: despite Another gender difference in biological risk the lower prevalence of exposure to risk factors involves biological responses to stress- factors among females in general. Males and females both exhibit who are clinically referred show more severe “fight or flight” neuroendocrine responses to behavior problems than boys. 18 / NO. antisocial females tend tered by persistent male offenders. activation. Understanding the Female Offender on the basis of behavioral problems during have been associated with delinquent behav- childhood. thyroid dysfunction. to exhibit a pattern of greater right frontal activation (more like that of normative males).70 Normative males and females tend to shorter careers do considerable damage in exhibit asymmetric frontal brain activation.64 Moreover. female EEG research has uncovered asymmetries in offending careers tend to be shorter than the frontal activation of antisocial females’ those of males. however. 2 / FALL 2008 129 . although evidence is mixed about with environmental influences to predispose the relative ages at which boys and girls women to antisocial behavior. Females.67 Likewise. These findings underscore the gender- the same risk factors for offending (see specificity of this particular marker and figure 4). Cushing’s disease. certain biological events during early on themselves.71 terone before birth is more common among males.

85 Poor between 25 percent and 31 percent.89 Interestingly. One study that I conducted with several colleagues found that males were more Interpersonal relationships with romantic likely than females to report having witnessed partners also can affect delinquent behavior.80 In other words. 92 percent report some disruptions are linked more strongly with form of emotional. while oth.81 romantic relationships also affect male and 1 30 T H E F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N . among children offense. while females were more with parents. physical. Research within clinical populations Researchers have long known that family consistently finds that girls are more often dynamics are a key contributor to delinq- abused than boys. with one in four violent girls having partner over the course of the six-year study. though boys may be more likely than delinquency in boys and girls. Wim Meeus and several likely to mention being the victim of violence.83 But the specific mecha- in rates of physical maltreatment. aspects of the family on the broader population of community environment influence both male and female youth has not shown such gender differences antisocial behavior. rates of victimization. parental Some observers have suggested that abuse support did not influence delinquency for is directly linked with subsequent violent youth who consistently had a romantic behaviors. tion between partner encouragement and bate the negative effects of childhood trauma self-reported offending was strongest among and victimization.86 and 47 percent for physical abuse. such as seeing a friend or fam.82 In general.79 And dysfunction in girls’ romantic partner.76 Closer Not surprisingly. or sexual abuse.75 supervision appears to influence offending Some studies report abuse rates for males more strongly in girls than in boys. although research focused uency. incarcerated females.72 Female nisms affecting behavior are sometimes offenders typically are abused before their first gender-specific. For example. although a lack of in the juvenile justice system are considerably parental supervision is associated with lower. the associa- stress-coping mechanisms may further exacer. but they also tend to have more limited abilities to cope with such Interpersonal factors beyond family and stressors.78 Abuse and exposure offenders.77 adolescent offending is strongest when an adolescent has no intimate partners. parenting nile justice system. female youth reporting warm relationships with their offenders have not only experienced higher opposite-sex parent. in some cases even more than relationships ily member killed. girls who self-reported delinquent to uncontrollable stressors are undeniably behavior were more likely to be strongly common precursors to conduct problems in encouraged in that behavior by their current female offenders.74 delinquency and drug abuse among girls than Self-reported victimization rates among boys among boys.Elizabeth Cauffman offending but is a stronger predictor among Interpersonal females. colleagues report that parental influence on such as sexual or physical abuse. incarcerated females view comparison reveals that delinquent males and their parents more negatively than do non- females tend to report different types of trau. thereby magnifying their effect. a violent event.87 mas as well.88 been sexually abused compared with one in In another recent study of serious adolescent ten nonviolent girls. emotional ties to family are more strongly ers report rates of 10 percent for sexual abuse associated with violence in girls than in boys.73 Among girls in the California juve. of substance-abusing parents. conflict over girls to underreport certain forms of abuse.84 Similarly.

Intervention. sensitivity to victimiza- among females. but further evidence shows that this and protective factors. well-being. compromised intelligence by peers. health needs of incarcerated offenders.90 Indeed. negative tempera- bully are more likely than boys to be rejected ment. and delinquency. self-reinforcements. 2 / FALL 2008 131 . has focused on males.92 the internal rewards associated with illegal This view has been bolstered by studies behavior. tion. including in boys do. Understanding the Female Offender female offending in different ways. as suggested by the substantial overlap shown in figure 4. were found to be more strongly demonstrating that self-representation and related to frequency of offending than to self-interpretation are key determinants of engaging or not engaging in violent aggression among girls. putting them at even greater risk —predict antisocial behavior in both males for chronic offending. prevalence of mental health problems—can be substantial and can profoundly influence More disruptive girls tend to show less the effectiveness of risk assessments and empathy than girls without behavior problems. Girls who same factors—ADHD. the strategy is generally not successful.93 Some evidence behaviors.96 the risk factors that influence offending. male and female ships that girls value more highly than offending differs in many ways. girls tend to be more thus concluded that the risk factors for sensitive to perceived threats to their social engaging in delinquent behaviors may not be relationships. the nomic status and child-rearing were more handling of offenders by the juvenile justice VOL. timing of onset of persistent offending. impulsivity. risk factors involving socioeco.91 Some observers posit that the same as those for frequency of offending girls’ perceptions of others’ expectations of and that both may be different between the them have a profound impact on emotional genders. empathy pose a greater risk for girls than for and Treatment boys because empathy strengthens the ability Although most research on antisocial behavior to foster the strong attachments and relation. the mental Interestingly. in most cases.94 and females. and this deficit is greater among females than among males. it is also important to note the areas in which risk factors differ by is a risk factor for both male gender. treatment programs. For example.98 suggests that female offenders use aggression as a way to sustain relationships through Notwithstanding these gender-specific risk coercion.97 Some observers have factor. the differences in these is a stronger predictor areas—for example. the trajectories of criminal careers. 18 / NO. adversarial than the frequency) of offending for females interpersonal relationships are a notable risk compared with males. attachment. For strongly related to the prevalence (rather females more than for males.95 It may be that lower levels of Risk Assessment.99 Although some analysts have argued the need to concentrate Victimization during on the commonalities in predictors of male childhood or adolescence and female offending.100 Even if the differences between and female offending but male and female offenders are confined to only a few key areas.

residential. model. which targets multiple sys- chance at predicting future violence among tems—for example. programs for boys. but only two for girls. explain why little programs can be effective. One study found progress has been made on understanding that girls placed in gender-specific Multidi. vention is the Earlscourt Girls Connection ately accurately but performed no better than intervention. It thus seems unlikely that risk similar to those for males who receive assessment methodologies developed for MTFC. The default approach to treating young one immediate sanctions program.5/mpg_index. and the ultimate adult outcomes of two years later. clinicians were able to tion effectiveness. it cited twenty-four styles and attitudes toward their daughters. Antisocial behaviors of boys and either to treat them the same as male offend- girls look relatively similar during childhood.107 Although these findings are offenders.108 Although this inter- Few. who were also equally well to males and females. Another promising inter- predict future violence among males moder.104 When the the positive changes took place in the girls Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency themselves and the extent to which they Prevention (OJJDP) identified a list of resulted from the mothers’ altered parenting promising programs. program can be used to understand and specific programming to address the unique respond to the needs of all young women in needs of adolescent female offenders. This approach warranted until the adolescent years.com/mpg2.110 Within a sample 1 32 T H E F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N . the etiology of female offending. ers or to treat them differently. highly encouraging. the study could not determine male offenders would apply equally well to whether the gender-specific modifications females. and no women who engage in serious forms of intermediate sanctions.106 But presupposes that one theory.102 focuses on young girls with aggressive and antisocial problems.105 Nevertheless.Elizabeth Cauffman system. or reentry aggression and antisocial behavior has been programs.101 For example. There is a involved in and affected by the intervention. similar paucity of effective treatment programs It is thus difficult to know the extent to which for adolescent female offenders. the juvenile justice system. if any. in a study of adult made to the MTFC influenced the interven- psychiatric patients. but as an oth- so gender-specific programming may not be erwise homogeneous group. family and peers—and females. dsgonline. A 2007 search increased due to program participation) is using OJJDP’s Model Programs Guide (www. risk assessment instruments have vention made positive changes in defiant been designed specifically for females within attitudes and behavior over a one-year forensic settings.103 Those that do exist period. or there appears to be a critical need for gender. the changes were based on reports by assume that the questions employed apply the participants’ mothers.109 The prevalence of such one-size-fits-all approaches to female There is some evidence that gender-specific offenders may.htm) identified only eleven prevention programs. Odgers and mensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC) her colleagues identified three subgroups of have lower levels of delinquent behavior than female juvenile offenders based on self-re- girls who receive group care when evaluated ported offending profiles. in fact. even the apparent improve- New Web-based resources developed to help ment reported by mothers (whose involve- identify programs for females also locate ment in their children’s lives has presumably alarmingly few programs.

health treatment. In general. suggests that the juvenile justice Implications for Practice system is functioning as a source (however and Policy ineffective) of otherwise unavailable mental As data on female offenders accumulate. Understanding the Female Offender of incarcerated female offenders. female offending are in dramatically short tions in male arrest rates). and reduc. Assessing risk using inaccurate tools ment of female offenders at the “front-end” will lead to inaccurate predictions. 18 / NO. but allow the juvenile justice system offending must be improved: not only are to focus on cases that present the greatest females accounting for a growing share of the risk to public safety. responding to such early warning signs could ment—whether because of a fundamental pay large dividends. the characteristics measured offenders in the juvenile justice system point can change with age in ways that vary by to a number of conclusions regarding treat. Moreover. but the long-term supply (see the article in this volume by consequences of offending for females Edward Mulvey and Anne-Marie Iselin). Practitio- of the system. processing. some research on risk stage of processing. The large number of female group. reliable risk assessment tools for changes in enforcement policy. however. Third. and future studies. In part. a delinquent remains unclear. need to account of community-based treatment options (see for such diversity. females are factors for persistent offending suggests that less likely to be arrested for most offenses. are less likely to be for. heterogeneous. the study have filtered out the less serious offenders found a low-offending group. Female offenders are thus highly the article in this volume by Thomas Grisso). however. total population of offenders (because of a combination of increases in female violence. most bias or because previous processing steps female offending behavior does not arise until VOL. studies of the experiences of female boys. and a highly violent and delinquent offenders with mental health problems (see group. tools devel- generation. Once charged. the article in this volume by Peter Green- wood). gender. they than for boys) and that prevention efforts appear more likely to receive secure confine. early childhood aggression in girls may prove and once arrested. Different studies have reached ners are thus cautioned to avoid relying on different conclusions about whether the such tools until their validity is demonstrated juvenile justice system is more or less lenient or until tools designed specifically for females toward female offenders at various stages of are developed and tested. as well as however. combined with the relative scarcity future treatment programs. Divert- what conclusions can practitioners and poli. especially for girls. ing female offenders with mental health cymakers draw from the emerging picture? problems to community-based treatment pro- First. the studies are inconclu- sive because it is difficult to account properly Although proven risk assessment tools for girls for the accumulated selection effects at each are notably lacking. are often more pronounced than those for Although boys and girls share many of the males. For example. a growing body of evidence makes grams would not only improve individual out- clear why policies and practices for female comes. to be an important precursor (even more so mally charged. oped for use with boys often measure dif- ferent underlying characteristics in girls and Second. 2 / FALL 2008 133 . with effects that extend to the next same risk factors for offending.

and many. and are more likely to tive prevention and treatment programs for be detained because of a lack of community. It is also becoming clear that female offenders are not a homogeneous The need for more effective treatment of group and that treatment approaches ulti- female offenders is underscored by studies mately should be tailored to suit individual suggesting that females are poorly served by needs defined more specifically than by the present system. despite social services less frequently than conduct. including family and peer problems. girls are less likely to receive help environment throughout childhood. foster development in a safe and nurturing As such. environments. 1 34 T H E F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE N . have roots that extend more likely to abandon in-patient treatment into childhood. Despite a high preva. these offend- they also interfere with rehabilitation efforts. it should be recognized that female offenders are likely Not only are the excessive mental health to require continued support long after their problems observed in female offenders a direct involvement with the juvenile justice likely contributor to offending behavior. lence of mental health problems.111 Similarly. offending. Finally.114 The most effective policies programs.112 Community-based services for for reducing juvenile crime will be those that girls are less prevalent than those for boys. ers may be unable to avoid passing on their As with prevention. many of the primary causes are disordered girls receive fewer special services. frequency of mental health problems among Evidence is emerging that gender-specific offending girls suggests that effective preven. effective treatment legacy to future generations. which makes it more difficult policies must grapple with these mental to distinguish between persistent and ado. gender alone. and are timization and trauma. health problems before antisocial or aggres- lescent-limited offending in girls. conduct.113 mental health needs. conduct- disordered girls use mental health and In conclusion. female offenders must address their unique based treatment options. espe- tion efforts should target these mental health cially when they target multiple aspects of needs before they lead to chronic behavior offenders’ lives. myriad differences between male and female disordered boys. Effec- from service agencies. such as vic- are less likely to complete treatment. The high sive behavior can be effectively treated. Without such support. treatment methods can be effective. but system. it should be noted that. nevertheless similar.Elizabeth Cauffman adolescence.

2. 1975). 14.S. 290. edited by Nancy Eisenberg. Office of Justice Programs. Ibid. Saulters-Tubbs. “Prosecutorial and Judicial Treatment of Female Offenders. Cassia Spohn and Dawn Beichner. edited by M. Freda Adler. Inc. Juvenile Offenders and Victims (see note 3). Tonry (University of Chicago Press. 1980 to 2003: A UCR-NCVS Comparison. N. 1 (2006): 72–98. and Richard Lerner (Hoboken. 3. C. 3 (2006): 241–61. 3: Social. p. Coie. and Justice (Belmont.C. “The Criminal Career Paradigm: Background and Recent Developments. Snyder and Sickmund. and Donald Lynam. VOL. no. Understanding the Female Offender Endnotes 1. “Gender Bias and Juvenile Justice Revisited: A Multiyear Analysis. 5. Piquero. “Gendered Justice: Attributional Differences between Males and Females in the Juve- nile Courts.. and Alfred Blumstein. 2 (2000): 149–84. vol. Howard N.” in Crime and Justice: A Review of Research. no. “Is Preferential Treatment of Female Offenders a Thing of the Past? A Multisite Study of Gender.” Jour- nal of Quantitative Criminology 22.” Federal Probation 57 (1993): 37–42.” Criminal Justice Policy Review 11. 9. Race. 2 / FALL 2008 135 . 2003). Mallicoat. Justice for Girls? Stability and Change in the Youth Justice Systems of the United States and Canada (University of Chicago Press. 7. 6. 359–506. pp. and Imprisonment. pp. no. David P. Joanne Belknap. 1 (2007): 4–30.” in Handbook of Child Psychology. The Invisible Woman: Gender. 30. Stacy L. no. Darrell Steffensmeier and others. 2 (2001): 173–95. 1996). Darrell Steffensmeier and Stephen Demuth. 13. 11. Kenneth A. Department of Justice. Calif. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report (Washington. 287. Juvenile Offenders and Victims (see note 3). 719–88. Snyder and Sickmund. 12.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 82. no.” Feminist Criminology 1. 4 (1992): 1162–86. Dodge. John M. Crime. Alex R. MacDonald and Meda Chesney-Lind. and Hispanic Defendants.: John Wiley & Sons. John D. and Personality Development. D.J.: U. 15. “Gender Bias in Juvenile Justice Processing: Implica- tions of the JJDP Act. 18 / NO.: Wadsworth. 4. William Damon. Far- rington. 2006). Emotional. “Gender Gap Trends for Violent Crimes. 10. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “Aggression and Antisocial Behavior in Youth. Snyder and Melissa Sickmund. Ibid. Jane Sprott and Anthony Doob. p. Ibid. “Does Gender Modify the Effects of Race-ethnicity on Criminal Sanctioning? Sentences for Male and Female White. 8. 2006). Donna Bishop and Charles Frazier.” Feminist Criminology 2. no. Black. vol. forthcoming). Sisters in Crime: The Rise of the New Female Criminal (New York: McGraw Hill.” Crime & Delinquency 47.

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