COLUMN: Gender-specific policy is needed for criminal reform


Gisella Mancera

Gisella Mancera, Columnist

Catering to gender may seem like the opposite of equality. We should see all people as having equal value and similar capabilities regardless of sex or gender. Therefore, fair treatment is expected in criminal sentencing.

But one can make the argument that gender-specific policy is a matter of equity rather than equality. All people should be held responsible for their crimes; however, women are being ushered into a system designed to handle male crime. Men commit the majority of violent crimes, according to the FBI’s 2012 arrest data, where “Males accounted for 80.1% of persons arrested for violent crimes.”

The prison system was designed for men with counteracting violence in mind. Then, we replicated the exact same system and stuck women in it.

This is an issue because prison policy and design were based off studies where research populations were solely men. In was not until the 1970s that feminist criminology emerged in response to the utter lack of research done on female crime, recidivism, and gender-specific policies that promote reintegration to society.

Women have unique pathways to crime that center around their gender. In the novel “The Female Offender: Girls, Women, and Crime,” authors Lisa Pasko and Meda Chesney-Lind emphasize that “Victimization dramatically circumscribe girls’ choices. In a number of instances, these same problems set the stage for their entry into youth homelessness, unemployment, drug use, survival sex (and sometimes prostitution), and, ultimately, other more serious criminal acts.”

Crimes committed by women are overwhelmingly drug and property offences, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Abuse at a young age can lead to homelessness and poverty, making a person susceptible to use drugs as a coping method. Sexual abuse in girlhood, especially when coupled with poverty, can lead to prostitution or survival sex to secure food, shelter and companionship. These relationships can be riddled with verbal, sexual or physical abuse in which women, will again, often resort to drugs to cope.

Because drug use is the most popular crime among women, the War on Drugs was one of the primary factors in the 7-fold increase in the women’s prison population between 1980 and 2019, according to The Sentencing Project.

Policies like the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 were designed to increase fairness by making sentencing more consistent to eliminate racial bias. Consequently, these policies also had a disparate impact on women and the community at large. Prior to the reform, judges had the discretion to take family needs into consideration in non-violent cases, like drugs. The Sentencing Reform Act revoked this discretion.

Multiple studies have shown how taking women out of the community does more harm than good because women are likely to be the primary caretaker of a child. By taking women out of the community in mass, this interferes with child development and attachment, creating new generations susceptible to environmental and psychological risk factors for crime.

While justice is imperative in sentencing, better policies need to be proposed in order to facilitate real rehabilitation for male and women offenders. If we want the justice system to be restorative rather than punitive, we need to develop programs that actually meet the needs of its population for both men and women.

Gisella Mancera is a senior sociology major. She can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected].