Female Lawbreakers and the Criminal Justice System

Women were ignored in mainstream criminology is combined with the actuality that male-based research findings are then applied to all; what is good for the gander must, then, be good for the goose. Datesman and Scarpitti (1980) add to the debate in stating that because male crime, is perceived as being more serious than female crime research into the former will invariably take priority over crimes committed by women. It is also recognised that the male dominated field of social research and its funding bodies is another contributory factor to a lack of research in this area.

Datesman & Scarpitti argue in their chapter on the aetiology of crime that criminologists continue to confine themselves to the physical and psychological theories when discussing female criminality, despite the progress that has been made in 'mainstream' criminology beyond these arguments to more socio-economic ones. "While there has been an evolution in theories of male criminality from Lombrosian positivism to the newer conflict and critical theories, this evolution has been largely absent in theories of female criminality. Most theorists have emphasised the biological and psychological aspects of female criminality. There has also been a tendency to regard male criminality as a much more complex phenomenon than female criminality." Datesman & Scarpitti (1985:)

Freda Adler in her chapter in Datesman & Scarpitti discusses the argument regarding the correlation between women's liberation and rising criminality – While accepting that the liberation movement and various pieces of legislation to promote equality have been followed by an increased participation in legitimate and illegitimate activities by women, it is worth noting that while women's salaries have not yet equalised that of men, the various expenses in the home to do with, for example, childcare, will invariably be the responsibility of the female partner Chadwick and Little (1987).

They state that "both traditional and early critical criminology failed to look at the contrasting social worlds and experiences of women and men. They did not address, let alone provide answers as to why, first, women's criminal careers are different to those of men, and second, why women are treated differently within the criminal justice process. Discussions and analysis traditionally have focused on male behaviour and male criminality. Theoretical criminology has largely been about, for, and written by men… the invisibility of women within academic criminology merely reflects a strong patriarchal tradition within the social sciences in general with women's history, experience culture, and politics being peripheral to the 'real issues' prioritised for research, teaching and publication.

The treatment of women within the criminal justice system cannot be seen to be equitable to that received by men. The reasons may be different according to which judge passes sentence on a female defendant – from a belief in Lombroso's theories on female criminality to a feminist ideology on female oppression and that lack of economic power due to patriarchy being the driving force behind the female defendant's criminality – a harsh sentence or a more lenient sentence because of the gender of the defendant will continue to confound the very principles underlying this criminal justice system. 

In conclusion academics, criminologists, feminists, the judiciary and the general public will all have thoughts and notions on female criminality, just as they do on male criminality; the difference in gender, however, should not be an acceptable excuse to apply arbitrary sentences to the female of the species.


LOMBROSO Cesare (1968) Crime: Its causes and Remedies, Patterson Smith Reprint series in Criminology, Law Enforcement and Social Problems New Jersey: Patterson Smith WORRALL Anne (1990) Offending Women – Female Lawbreakers and the Criminal Justice System, London: Routledge ADLER F, SIMON R (1979) The Criminology of Deviant Women, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.