Men long have been regarded as the usual suspects when it comes to crime and violence. But a growing body of research on crime shows that the gender line is indeed breaking down.The past three decades alone have witnessed a dramatic rise in female-authored crimes and that sharp increase is reflected by the growing number of women on our nation’s prison rolls.In 1970 there were about 6,000 women incarcerated in federal and state prisons, says Dr. Andrew Chishom, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina. Fifteen years later, the number had jumped to 22,000, and by the mid ’90s it had skyrocketed to 75,000 and is growing steadily at a rate of nearly 11 percent a year, he indicates.New Justice Department statistics place the number of women currently behind bars at almost 90,000!So what has sparked this sudden upswing in crime by women?Sociologists and criminal justice experts say that women’s disproportionately high rate of poverty, women’s increased access to areas of crime formerly dominated by males, and the overall increase of violence and crime are some possible explanations for the surge.
“Women still lag behind men significantly in terms of their numbers in prison,” Dr. Chishom says. They are a small fraction of the nearly 1.9 million total adults incarcerated.
“But the most significant thing is that crime accelerated at a greater percentage among women than for men in the same reporting period,” Chishom adds.The disparity in earnings that still exists between women and men in general and for Black women in particular, known as the feminization of poverty, is a likely cause for that upsurge.”There is a long-standing association between poverty and crime,” says Dr. BarBara Scott, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Northeastern Illinois University (NIU) and chair of NIU’s departments of criminal justice, social work, sociology and women’s studies.
“When you factor in race and gender, it’s even more prevalent because there is a disproportionate percentage of African-Americans who are poor. Women are disproportionately poor [compared to men] and Black women are far more disproportionately poor than other groups of women.”Of course everyone who is poor is not going to resort to crime for survival, Dr. Scott says, “but poverty certainly does lead to a higher probability of crime.”Another possible reason for the surge in crime among women concerns something sociologists refer to as the “liberation hypothesis.
” Women, because of their gender, their status as consumers and their lack of access to certain institutions in society, typically have been confined to crimes such as shoplifting, credit card and welfare fraud and prostitution.But as society moves toward greater gender equality and women gain more access to legitimate arenas, such as employment and education, they also gain access to once-restricted avenues of crime.”Similar to opportunities for women to become competitive in the employment market, in education, in the military and other areas, crime opportunities literally opened up,” informs Dr. Chishom, noting that the 1980s brought a marked change in the types of crime in which women participated.
“They started involving themselves in crimes that historically have been male-dominated crimes,” says Dr. Chishom, who also serves as director of the University of South Carolina’s Southern Region Violence & Substance Abuse Prevention Center. “The murder rate among women went up significantly, crimes against property went up significantly as well as street crimes dealing with substance abuse.
” Women entered the growing illegal drug trade as smugglers and dealers.”Quite frankly women became more daring,” he says, and more confident in competing with men in male-dominated crimes.Another possible reason for the rise in female offenders, particularly in the case of violent offenders, may have something to do with the increasingly violent nature of our society.While Dr.
Scott clarifies that it’s not a cause-and-effect relationship, she admits there is a correlation between the increasing acceptance of violence in this society and the increase in violent crimes by women and men alike.”We are very apathetic when it comes to violence,” she says. “Violence is everywhere in the media and it has become an accepted way of dealing with frustration and aggression, and it’s not just men.”Women account for about 14 percent, 2.1 million, of all violent offenders, informs Dr. Zina McGee, a sociology professor at Hampton University who specializes in criminology and juvenile delinquency.
However the vast majority of those women (3 out of 4) commit only simple assault, which doesn’t involve a weapon, she says.Again the liberation hypothesis comes into play. The confidence women gained from breaking through gender barriers in American society flowed into other areas as well, experts inform. As women achieve greater parity with men on all levels, women find they too can engage in behavior, specifically violent behavior, that once was deemed inappropriate for ladies.