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According to merit?: Inmate insight

Every Issue

Cite as: (2004) 78(3) LIJ, p. 89

The question of what leads women to criminally offend is one that, until now, has largely been ignored.

Women make up only a small percentage of the Australian prison population but it is important that studies are done to examine why they offend, otherwise that percentage will quickly increase to a level that warrants the attention and resources that are currently being channelled towards understanding male offending.

With only 7 per cent of the Australian prison population being female,[1] it is not surprising that the focus has been on their male counterparts who demand more resources and cause more damage both financially and personally to the community.

As a result, not much is known about the offending behaviour of women and what leads this small number to act in a manner vastly different from the rest of the female population.

In October 2003, Dr Katie Willis and research assistant Catherine Rushforth attempted to find out what factors lead women to offend. In collating data from various sources, they found that there was a close relationship between criminal behaviour and drug use.[2]

They also found that women were generally incarcerated for non-violent crimes such as theft and prostitution to finance their drug habit – with the figure of 70 per cent being cited as the proportion of women addicts who supported their addiction through prostitution.[3]

In their overview, Dr Willis and Ms Rushforth referred to a study conducted in New South Wales[4] which used women prisoners as their base sample. This study attempted to establish a profile for female offenders.

This profile included the following traits:

  • three in five women were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of offending;
  • the majority of these women had an education no greater than year 10;
  • two-thirds had been in the workforce for less than one year in total; and
  • half reported a prior family history associated with drugs or sexual or physical abuse.

These results mirror those profiled in Western Australia.[5]

It is clear that because of factors such as drugs, a low level of education, and sexual or physical abuse, female offenders have special needs that if not addressed may lead to reoffending.[6] These special needs include “affordable housing, social supports and the attainment of skills and qualifications that can lead them into meaningful employment following their release”.[7]

Although the profiles mentioned are helpful they are by no means exhaustive. There are sections of the female prison population where little, if anything, is known about them. Many questions need to be asked to obtain a comprehensive picture of the diverse backgrounds of female inmates and what similarities and differences affect each group. The questions include: what proportion of indigenous or migrant women are incarcerated?; have they successfully adjusted once released?; how many female offenders are single parents?; and are there appropriate support structures available to assist them?

Answers to these questions will enable authorities to decide what direction programs aimed at abating offending should take.

Currently, the information available has been gathered from many different sources including administrative data from organisations such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics or the Office of Corrections in each state, and surveys such as the National Drug Strategy Household Survey. This data – although helpful – is incomplete, limiting its effectiveness. Dr Willis and Ms Rushforth suggest in-depth research be conducted to fill in the gaps in information necessary in creating policies regarding the “management of women through the criminal justice system and in drug treatment settings, as well as in the prevention and/or reduction of reoffending”.[8]

With an increase in the reported use of amphetamines and ecstasy by women,[9] it is imperative that resources be used to accurately collect and interpret data before the percentage of female offenders increases further.

SUSAN BORG is a barrister, a sessional member of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal and a part-time member of the Migration Review Tribunal.

[1] Australian Institute of Criminology 2002, Australian Crime: Facts and Figures 2002 as cited in “The female criminal: an overview of women’s drug use and offending behaviour”, Australian Institute of Criminology trends and issues in crime and criminal justice paper no 264 at p4. See

[2] The female criminal” paper, note 1 above at p1.

[3] Anglin, MD and Hser, Y, “Addicted women and crime” (1987) 25(2) Criminology 359-97 as cited in note 2 above at p5.

[4] Kevin, M, Women in Prison with Drug-related Problems, Part 1: Background and characteristics, 1994, New South Wales Department of Corrective Services, as cited in note 2 above at p4.

[5] Western Australia Department of Justice, “Profile of women in prison”, 2002, see, as cited in note 2 above at p4.

[6] See note 2 above at p5.

[7] Carnaby, H, Road to Nowhere: A report on the housing and support needs of women leaving prison in Victoria, 1998, Flat Out Inc, Collingwood, as cited in note 2 above at p2.

[8] See note 2 above at p5.

[9] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, “2001 national drug strategy household survey: first results”, 2002, Drug Statistics Series, no 9, as cited in note 2 above at p2.


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