12:55pm Tuesday 10 December 2019

Loraine Gelsthorpe: "A high proportion of women who commit offences have been subjected to sexual abuse and domestic violence"

La professora de la Universitat de Cambridge Loraine Gelsthorpe.

La professora de la Universitat de Cambridge Loraine Gelsthorpe.


Her academic work has revolved around women, crime and criminal justice, and includes criminal justice responses to human trafficking, migration and crime, and women and sentencing. Professor Gelsthorpe explains that she had interest in these issues as she realized that women were always out of the picture in the field of criminology. Last November, she pronounced a lecture at the Faculty of Economics and Business within the International Sociological Debates Seminar de la UB (ISDUB), a forum opened to the general public in which prestigious international experts analyse sociological issues.

Do women commit different criminal offences than men?

Broadly speaking, men and women commit a similar range of crimes. But, on the whole, women’s crimes are less serious as they are property related: theft, handling stolen goods, etc. This sort of crimes is much more common than criminal damage or violent offences. Very few women offenders commit serious white-collar crimes. So, on the spectrum, women’s offences are less serious. Moreover, women’s criminal careers are much shorter. Personally, I think that it is important to think about a gender-informed approach because if we want the criminal justice system to work effectively, we need to take into account how people learn or work better with them. That way we might even make cost savings and be more effective in terms of reducing offences.

What causes lead women to commit offences? Are they different from men’s?

The backgrounds of men and women in terms of the pathways into crime bear some similarities but also some differences. So, although we may find both men and women who have experiences child-sexual abuse, abusive relationships, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, etc. In proportion, we find more women that have those characteristics. A high proportion of women who commit offences have been subjected to sexual abuse and domestic violence; and a high proportion of women show psychological problems too. Possibly, these problems are due to the distress of being in difficult relationships, the distress of poverty and so on.

Why has the number of imprisoned women risen in recent years?

The increases in the use of imprisonment for women tend to be worldwide. If we analyse the reasons, a first starting point could be to consider whether more women are committing crimes or they are committing more serious crimes; whether sentencing has changed in such a way that there is no more impunity to women. But analyses of that sort do not provide evidence to suggest that the overall pattern of crime is changing. Perhaps, more women are committing drugs offences and indeed more women are committing violent offences. However, it tends to be low level violence and low level drug offences. Other reason to the increases of imprisonment might be that women are affected by a general punitive trend. Another reason might be that prison has become the modern social services used instead of community resources and social services because in an economic recession those services are no longer available. Moreover, it can be also related to the high number of foreign national women in prison, including migrants, charged with offences related to drug trafficking. In the case of women, they are not the organisers of drug trafficking. They are the carriers. Women are easily persuaded to carry drugs because of the promise of money to buy shoes or food for children shoes or to pay education fees.

Going back to the gender-informed approach, is it useful to avoid this increase of prison sentences?

To give an example, a gender-informed approach might mean special interventions based on what we know about what women need, their pathways into crime and how women learn. So in England and Wales, for example, or rather the UK, more generally, there is now a serious network of community centres, community services, for women. They have benefited women in terms of women offenders being alongside other women who have social disadvantages. So the community centres are general resources but include women who have committed offences. But the priority in those centres is to address social problems, to offer and generate mutual support, in order to benefit women’s lives in general. There might some specific interventions related to the crimes, but overall as the centres can be used to keep women out of prison or to support women at home release from prison. Benefits can include also a better sense of well-being, better health, better support, better money management, better care of children, etc.

 Universitat de Barcelona

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