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Interventions With Justice-Involved Girls and Women

Published onApr 22, 2024
Interventions With Justice-Involved Girls and Women


Cortoni, F. & Fontaine, N.M.G. (2024). Interventions with female offenders. In G. Davies, A.R. Beech, & M. Colloff (Eds.). Forensic Psychology: Crime, Justice, Law, Interventions – 4th Ed. (pp. 606-626). Wiley-Blackwell.


Interventions; Female offenders; Antisocial behaviour; Adolescent females

Glossary of technical terms

Individuals who engage in antisocial behaviour break rules or transgress social conventions, threaten/intimidate others, cause injury to others and/or damage property. Antisocial behaviour can notably be categorized as premeditated or impulsive/reactive.

A developmental trajectory describes the progression of a given behaviour (e.g., physical aggression) or traits (e.g., callous-uncaring traits) as individuals age. For instance, researchers could identify different developmental trajectories of physical aggression in a sample of youth (e.g., high stable trajectory and decreasing trajectory).

Gender-responsive refers to practices and interventions that were chosen specifically for girls or women.

Iatrogenic effects are negative outcomes induced by interventions.

Nonmaleficence is an ethical principle which refers to avoiding harming others.

Trauma-informed practice refers to an approach in which the presence of trauma symptoms and the role that trauma can play in a person’s life are considered when developing and implementing interventions.


Women have long been the afterthought in research on criminal behaviour (Brown & Gelsthorpe, 2022); most of the research done on offending behaviour having been conducted on male offenders. One reason for this lack of research is an assumption that the factors that lead to criminal behaviour are universal, regardless of gender. This assumption, however, has been proven inaccurate. Research has shown that although men and women share some of the same characteristics that lead to criminal behaviour, differences do exist. Consequently, it is becoming evident that a gender-informed, as opposed to a gender-neutral, approach to the assessment and treatment of female offenders is warranted. The term ‘gender-neutral’, in this context, refers to characteristics and practices that are equally applicable to men and women offenders. The term ‘gender-specific’ refers to characteristics unique to females or that manifest themselves in gendered ways. Finally, the term ‘gender-informed’ refers to models of interventions that have been informed by women-based research (rather than adaptation of male-based models of interventions). This chapter provides an overview of this knowledge base and outlines current assessment and intervention practices for criminalized girls and women.

Antisocial Behaviour in Adolescent Females

Overview of the Phenomenon

Until recently, most of the research on adolescent antisocial behaviour focused on male samples. This is partly because antisocial behaviour in males, as defined by the criminal justice system (e.g., assault, burglary, vandalism), is more common, serious and persistent than in females (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 2014; Lanctôt, 2010) and appears to be more costly to society (Foster, Jones, & Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, 2005). The late nineties were marked by an increased interest in antisocial behaviour in females (Lanctôt, 2010). The media depicted cases of isolated, although particularly violent, antisocial acts committed by adolescent females, which were reinforced by official statistics that suggested increasing rates of female violent delinquency (Verlann & Déry, 2006).

The scientific community also started to pay more attention to the phenomenon, leading to a multiplication of publications on antisocial behaviour in female adolescents (Lanctôt, 2010). Research showed that like in males, antisocial behaviour in adolescent females is associated with a constellation of adjustment problems in adolescence and adulthood, including substance use problems, criminal behaviour, violence in intimate relationships, poor educational attainment, and internalizing problems (Fontaine et al., 2008; Odgers et al., 2008). Moreover, there is evidence suggesting that a history of maternal antisocial behaviour and early childbirth can contribute to the transmission of antisocial behaviour across generations (Serbin et al., 2004; Zoccolillo et al., 2005). Research shows that antisocial behaviour in adolescent females is an important mental health and social issue and that a comprehensive understanding of this phenomenon has the potential to inform clinical practices (Fontaine, Carbonneau, Vitaro, Barker, & Tremblay, 2009). In this section, we will assess the extent of antisocial behaviour in adolescent females based on official records and self-reports, review theoretical models, examine the behaviours more particularly manifested by adolescent females, discuss issues related to the juvenile justice system and address potential effective interventions for females.

Antisocial Behaviour in Adolescent Females Based on Official Records and Self-reports

Given the increased interest in antisocial behaviour in adolescent females and the apparent raise in female violent delinquency according to official statistics, one may wonder if antisocial behaviour really augmented over time. Here are a few observations1 based on extant research (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 2014; Lanctôt, 2010):

  • Adolescent females are less likely than their male counterparts to be arrested for violent crimes and for serious property offenses.

  • Based on official records, the number of charges for property crimes tends to decrease in females.

  • Based on official records, the number of violent charges has increased in females. However, violent delinquency based on females’ self-reports over the last decades appears relatively stable.

  • Although adolescent females are much less involved in delinquent behaviour than adolescent males, self-reports suggest that a small group of girls, increasing in number but still representing a minority, is highly involved in violent delinquency. This group may explain, at least partially, the increased rates of female violent delinquency observed in official records.

Overview of Theoretical Models Explaining Antisocial Behaviour in Females

Different theoretical models have been proposed to explain antisocial behaviour in females. Because it would not be possible to discuss in detail all proposed models in this chapter, we will focus on two influential approaches, namely the feminist perspectives and the developmental models (for more in-depth information about models explaining antisocial behaviour by adolescent females, see e.g., Lanctôt & Le Blanc, 2002).

First, proponents of the feminist perspectives have put forward broader societal and cultural influences as contributing factors of antisocial behaviour in females, including socialization processes, gender-based roles, patriarchal society, oppression, victimization and social classes (e.g., Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 2014). For instance, violence in females has been explained by a reaction to male dominance and abuse, adverse family environment and victimization, economic dependence and sexual oppression within relationships, and patriarchal values of society that depreciate females’ roles. Although feminist approaches have not traditionally focused on individual factors to explain antisocial behaviour in females, some feminist scholars have more recently considered the interactions between the multiple spheres of influence in people’s lives, including social, historical, institutional, as well as individual factors (e.g., the Feminist Ecological Model; Ballou, Matsumoto, & Wagner, 2002). Empirical research has notably highlighted the critical importance of abusive family relationships to explain female delinquency (Cernkovich, Lanctôt, & Giordano, 2008).

Second, research by developmental criminologists has also contributed to the understanding of antisocial behaviour in females. Researchers have suggested that individuals can follow different developmental trajectories of antisocial behaviour (e.g., Moffitt, 1993; Patterson, 1982). Two of the most discussed trajectories are the early-onset/lifecourse-persistent and the adolescence-limited (Moffitt, 2003). Based on the model, life-course-persistent individuals are characterized by multiple risk factors2 (e.g., severe family adversity, harsh discipline, neuropsychological deficits, hyperactivity. callous-uncaring traits) and by poor adult outcomes (e.g., violence, substance abuse, and work and family life problems). They also tend to manifest violent behaviour early in life. Only a small proportion of the population (around 5% to 10%; primarily males) is estimated to follow this trajectory (Moffitt, 2003). Adolescence-limited individuals (about 15% to 30% of the adolescent population), conversely, are transient in their expression of antisocial behaviour. They seek social status through delinquent behaviours, are influenced by deviant peers and tend to be poorly supervised by their parents. These youths are less prone to use violence, compared to the youths following an early-onset/lifecourse-persistent trajectory, and their antisocial behaviour is expected to be limited to adolescence. However, their adult outcomes can also be characterized by adjustment problems, although less so than life-course-persistent individuals, notably because they may be entrapped in ‘snares’ (e.g., criminal record, addiction, low education attainment) that compromise their ability to successfully transition to adulthood (Moffitt, 2003).

Because the developmental trajectories of antisocial behaviour were validated primarily on male or predominantly male samples, their generalization to the development of antisocial behaviour in females has been questioned (Silverthorn & Frick, 1999). For instance, it has been proposed that the two-trajectory model (i.e., early-onset/life-course-persistent and adolescence-limited) was not consistent with existing data on females with antisocial behaviour, and that a third trajectory, an adolescence-delayed-onset trajectory, would be more appropriate to characterize antisocial behaviour in females (Silverthorn & Frick, 1999). These females are expected to have similar risk factors to early-onset/life-course males (i.e., family adversity and neuropsychological deficits) but to have an adolescence-onset of antisocial behaviour. They are also expected to manifest antisocial behaviour in adulthood as well as other adjustment problems, such as substance abuse and mental health disorders. The adolescence-delayed-onset trajectory could be explained by a combination of factors leading to the inhibition of childhood antisocial behaviour even in the presence of risk factors. At least two processes may be at work, namely socialization processes that discourage girls from adopting externalizing behaviours but encourage the expression of their behavioural symptoms through internalizing problems, and protective factors3 more prevalent in females than in males, such as better school achievement and higher levels of parental supervision (Keenan & Shaw, 1997; Silverthorn & Frick, 1999).

Empirical findings provide partial support for the three trajectories of antisocial behaviour in females (i.e., early-onset/lifecourse-persistent, adolescence-limited and adolescence-delayed-onset trajectories; Fontaine et al., 2009). Further research is needed to advance theoretical and empirical knowledge about the emergence and development of antisocial behaviour in females.

The Manifestations of Antisocial Behaviour in Adolescent Females

Like in males, female antisocial behaviour encompasses a wide range of manifestations. One important difference is that females are less prone to severe and violent behaviour compared to males. To assess better the extent of antisocial behaviour in females, researchers and clinicians should expand the definition beyond offenses defined by the criminal justice system (Lanctôt & Le Blanc, 2002). For instance, antisocial behaviour in females should include an array of manifestations, such as conduct problems, defiant and oppositional behaviour, violence in intimate relationships, as well as status offenses, namely actions that are prohibited only to minors (e.g., running away from home and being a truant). Adolescent females may also tend to be involved in forms of aggression that do not involve physical confrontations, such as social, relational or indirect aggression4 (Archer & Coyne, 2005). It consists of many forms, such as spreading nasty rumours, deliberately leaving others out of the group, and breaking confidences. These behaviours harm others through damage (or threat of damage) to relationships or group inclusion. They have attracted attention because they can lead to considerable psychological harm to their victims, such as depressive and anxiety symptoms, and even suicide (see Archer & Coyne, 2005). Comorbid disorders, such as depression, anxiety and substance use problems are also prevalent in adolescent females with antisocial behaviour (Zoccolillo, 1992). Such comorbidity has also been found in males. However, there is evidence suggesting that for females, depression appears to follow antisocial behaviour and to grow more severe as they enter adulthood (Moffitt, Caspi, Rutter, & Silva, 2001). Broidy and Thompson (2019) proposed that when females face developmental challenges (e.g., exposure to victimization), a range of emotions (anger but also other emotions such as fear and guilt) frame their responses including offending but also other antisocial outcomes. Another aspect of antisocial behaviour in females that draws clinicians’ and researchers’ attention concerns their involvement in street gangs. Females involved in street gangs are at risk for victimization and sexual exploitation (prostitution and nude dancing). There is also evidence suggesting that they are involved in fraud, theft, drug dealing, and other forms of antisocial behaviour such as assault (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 2014; Lanctôt, 2010).

Adolescent Females and the Justice System

Potential Effective Interventions for Adolescent Females with Antisocial Behaviour

One important implication that can be drawn from the studies reviewed in this chapter is that antisocial behaviour in females can emerge at different ages and follow different patterns. Therefore, like in males, prevention efforts should start early in females, especially for the ones at risk for engaging in an early onset of antisocial behaviour. Antisocial behaviour in females can also emerge in adolescence, which suggests that interventions during this developmental period also need to be considered. Intervention programs designed for at-risk youth or youth with behavioural problems that have shown positive effects on antisocial behaviour in females should be of particular interest for researchers and clinicians (e.g., Chamberlain, 2003; Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group, 2002). Because a subset of females with antisocial behaviour is at risk for adjustment problems in adulthood (e.g., girls with an early onset of antisocial behaviour), the transition between adolescence and adulthood might be an important period to intervene.

Association with deviant peers, emotional problems, substance use problems or difficulties related to finding a job or to complete a diploma are among the factors that may compromise a successful transition to adulthood (Rutter, 1996; Thornberry, 2005). Interventions aimed at promoting educational attainment or job-related skills, social skills, social supports, mental health as well as relationships with prosocial peers may help females with antisocial behaviour to have a more successful transition to adulthood (Heller, Price, & Hogg, 1990). Given that females with antisocial behaviour are at an increased risk to associate with a deviant partner (Moffitt et al., 2001), to become pregnant at an early age (Bardone et al., 1996; Fontaine et al., 2008), and to have poor parenting skills that would increase the likelihood of an intergenerational transmission of antisocial behaviour (Zoccolillo et al., 2005), interventions that aim to prevent antisocial behaviour in females and related adjustment problems should be a social priority. Although the social costs of antisocial behaviour in females, compared to males, may seem less substantial a priori, they may become increasingly manifest as these females grow up, enter intimate relationships, and become mothers themselves (Pepler & Sedighdeilami, 1998).

Early intervention programs, such as the Nurse-family Partnership, a program of prenatal and early childhood home visitation by nurses targeting first-time mothers who present certain vulnerabilities (e.g., young age and from households of low socioeconomic status), can be particularly cost-effective. Assessment of the Nurse-family Parternship showed that this program can reduce the use of welfare, child abuse and neglect, and criminal behaviour on the part of low-income, unmarried mothers for up to 15 years after the birth of the first child, as well as serious antisocial behaviour and use of substances on the part of adolescents born into high-risk families (Olds et al., 1997; Olds et al., 1998).

It should be noted that program assessments do not always depict such positive effects. Modest or even iatrogenic effects have been found, particularly in group settings where contagion is likely to occur because deviant youths are placed together (Dodge, Dishion, & Lansford, 2006; Lipsey, 1992). Further, certain programs appear to be more promising than others. For instance, the Oregon Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC), a program developed as an alternative to group and residential care for youth with delinquency and severe emotional problems, is proving worthwhile (Chamberlain, 2003). This program aims to create supports and opportunities for youth in a way to make them have a successful community living experience and to help their family members or other aftercare placement resources to use effective strategies allowing youth to maintain the gains made during the MTFC program after they return home. The program includes multiple intervention strategies, such as family and individual therapy, skill training and academic supports, and is adapted to be more responsive to the clinical needs of adolescent females. For instance, in addition to the original components (e.g., close supervision, clear structure and limits, reinforcement of prosocial behaviour), the interventions designed for adolescent females with antisocial behaviour particularly focus on mental health issues, history of trauma and abuse, educational history, substance use, sexual history, and relational aggression. There is evidence suggesting that the MTFC can reduce delinquent behaviour in girls referred from the juvenile justice (Leve, Chamberlain, & Reid, 2005).

One important question that remains to be answered is whether or not gender-specific programs are needed for adolescents with antisocial behaviour. Research suggests that it may not be necessary to design and implement distinct programs for males and for females (Lanctôt, 2010). For instance, cognitive-behavioural programs targeting different social skills (e.g., problem solving skills, anger management) appear to be relevant to males as well as to females. Promising programs and practices, however, integrate components that may be specifically relevant for females with antisocial behaviour, including comorbid mental health problems and issues with intimate and interpersonal relationships. In addition, one important aspect that would need to be particularly addressed in programs targeted at young females is their early victimization histories as victimization, notably sexual abuse, has been shown to be an important risk factor associated with antisocial behaviour in females (Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 2014; Lanctôt, 2010). Research in less studied groups for which knowledge of effective practices is limited, such as justice-involved Indigenous girls, also appears crucial (Gutierrez & Wanamaker, 2022). Developing and implementing practices addressing their specific needs (e.g., gender-, culture- and trauma-informed services) may help to promote their wellbeing, healthy relationships and safe communities. Despite promising approaches, however, further experimental and longitudinal studies are needed to test the effects of interventions for females with antisocial behaviour to verify their effectiveness by first making sure that the principle of nonmaleficence has been honoured.

Case Study 1: Kate

In nursery school, Kate was manifesting aggressive behaviour, hyperactive symptoms and emotion regulation problems. She grew up in an adverse family environment, characterized by harsh parenting, psychological abuse and poverty. The youth services had to intervene a few times given the adverse family situation and the behavioural problems manifested by Kate. In adolescence, she was using drugs and alcohol and had symptoms of depression and anxiety. Kate was also involved in delinquent behaviour, more specifically shoplifting and vandalism. She was arrested for drug dealing and was involved in a couple of fights, during which she once seriously injured another girl. She was hanging out with delinquent peers who acted aggressively toward each other (they notably used relational aggression). At age 17, she became pregnant and gave birth to a boy. Her parents did not want to help her nor the father of her child. Although she was able to complete a high school diploma, she has relied on the welfare system since her child was born. Now at the age of 19 years old, she is still using drugs and is involved in shoplifting. She has a boyfriend who also uses drugs. They both want to quit using drugs and are seeking professional help. Kate is also seeking a job. She has provided good care to her son since he was born. However, now aged 2 years old, her son is showing higher levels of aggressive behaviour compared to other toddlers.

Adult Female Offenders

Prevalence and Recidivism

One of the most consistent findings over the years is that women commit far fewer criminal offenses than men. Statistics from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States show that women account for about 20% of all charges or arrests and about five per cent of the incarcerated population (Brown & Gelsthorpe, 2022). When only violent offenses are considered, the data indicate a greater gender disparity. Although the data fluctuate according to studies and to type of violent crime (e.g., simple versus aggravated assault), women appear to be responsible for about 10% of violent crimes (Warner, 2012). Over the last two decades, in comparison with earlier base rates, rates of violence by women increased tremendously but now appear to be stabilizing or even declining (Benda, 2005; van Wormer, 2010). For example, in Canada, the rate of women charged for a violent offense almost quadrupled between 1981 and 2008 before declining by 19% between 2009 and 2017, from 443 to 360 accused females per 100,000 population, respectively (Statistics Canada, 2019). While at first glance, the data suggest that violence by women remains high, a closer examination reveals that in comparison to men, the base rate of violence by women continues to be low. For example, in 2017, 1274 men versus 366 women were charged for violent Criminal Code violations (Statistics Canada, 2019).

It is unclear whether this situation has occurred because women commit more violent offenses or because changes to the criminal justice system has led to increased arrests and charges for violent offenses among women. There are some suggestions in the literature that changes in arrest decisions by the police (for example, changes in criminal justice system policy dictating that anyone who has engaged in domestic violence must be charged and the recognition that women engage in sexually assaultive behaviours) does play a role in the increase in official rates of violence by women (van Wormer, 2010; Warner, 2012). Interestingly, however, there does not appear to be a corresponding increase in official arrests rates for sexual offenses among women. For example, in Canada, between 1994 and 2003, the yearly rate of women accused of sexual assault has consistently been between 1% and 2% despite victimization evidence that shows women are involved in about 12% of all sexual offenses (Cortoni, Babchishin, & Rat, 2017).

Besides committing fewer crimes than men, women offenders recidivate at much lower rates than men (Blanchette & Brown, 2006; Olver & Stockdale, 2022). Bonta, Rugge, and Dauvergne (2003) found that in a two-year period following release from custody, men had a 44% reoffending rate while the rate for women was 30%. These authors report that Canadian and U.K. rates are somewhat equivalent, citing U.K. recidivism rates of 50% and 45% for men and women respectively. Research also shows that differences in reoffending rates are greater when subtypes of recidivism are examined. Bonta et al. (2003) found rates of violent recidivism of 7% for women versus 14% for men. Finally, research shows that rates of sexual recidivism among women who have committed sexual offenses are even lower. In a meta-analysis of the recidivism rates among women convicted of sexual offenses, Cortoni, Hanson, and Coache (2010) found a sexual recidivism rate of 1.5%. In contrast, the sexual recidivism rate for of men is 13.5% (Hanson & Bourgon, 2005).

Although these findings all indicate that women reoffend less than men, there is some evidence that not all women are at lower risk than their male counterparts. In their review of the predictive utility of the Level of Supervision Inventory (LS-CMI, Andrews, Bonta, & Wormith, 2004), an instrument developed to assess risk of general recidivism, Olver and Stockdale (2022) found that for the exact same predictors, women had actual lower rates of new criminal offenses than men – but only among women assessed as moderate or low risk of recidivism. Women who scored high on the LS-CMI for risk of recidivism had the same criminogenic characteristics and the same recidivism rates as the men who also scored high on the scale. This latter finding suggests that when criminalized women continue engaging in criminal activities, they increasingly resemble their male counterparts.

Pathways to Offending and Related Criminogenic Factors

Justice-involved women are a diverse group of individuals with differing motivational and offending patterns. They also vary in the factors that led them to engage in criminality: some women exhibit a combination of gender-neutral and gender-specific criminogenic factors while others exhibit only gender-specific ones (Brennan, Breitenbach, Dieterich, Salisbury, & Van Voorhis, 2012; Daly, 1994; Olver & Stockdale, 2022; Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009; Simpson, Yahner, & Dugan, 2008). Daly (1994) conducted a ground-breaking analysis of the pathways followed by women into their criminal behaviour. Up to that time, feminist theorists had posited that women became criminalized because of their need to escape abusive situations in their home environment and becoming ensnared in problematic lifestyles that led to their offending behaviour. In her analysis, however, Daly found evidence for five explanatory pathways to offending behaviour. Subsequent research by Brennan et al. (2012), Salisbury and Van Voorhis (2009), and Simpson, et al. (2008) has largely supported these gendered pathways albeit with some sample-specific differences. This research provides support for the feminist position that female criminality is best explained by distinct etiological pathways that include drugs, defensive violence against partners, and childhood physical and/or sexual victimisation. Summarized here are the main pathways and their accompanying criminogenic characteristics as established by Brennan et al. (2012):

  • The “normal functioning” drug/property pathway: Offenders in this pathway demonstrate few childhood problems and have no evidence of abuse or psychological issues. They appear to be those adolescent-limited offenders who got ‘snared’ into ongoing criminality during adult year due to drug use and parental stresses. These women tend to demonstrate lower risk of criminal recidivism and present with few criminogenic factors.

  • The battered women/victimization pathway: This pathway involves women with severe child and adult histories of physical and sexual victimization, chronic drug problems, unsafe housing, and chaotic lives. Criminal activity and substance use are common in the women’s families. Not surprisingly, social support from their families tends to be poor and parenting is stressful. Their conjugal relationships are characterized by conflict and violence. Women in this pathway tend to demonstrate above average mental health issues, anger and hostility problems, and problems with aggression.

  • The poor marginalized antisocial pathway: This pathway is characterized by women who are poor and socially marginalized, have educational or vocational deficits and poor employment skills. They show little evidence of sexual or physical victimization or mental health problems. These women originate from or reside in high crime neighbourhoods, have antisocial significant others, and are mainly involved in drug or property offenses. Their main criminogenic needs relate to their links to an antisocial subculture, antisocial peers, higher family crime, residence in higher crime areas, and frequent drug trafficking.

  • The antisocial aggressive pathway: This pathway is akin to the harmed and harming women first established by Daly (1994). Women in this pathway are characterized by lifelong histories of sexual and physical victimization, high rates of placement in foster care during childhood, antisocial significant others, hostile antisocial personality, mental health issues, and homelessness. These severely abused women develop at an early age hostile antisocial personalities combined with mental health or depression issues, marginalization, and homelessness. Not surprisingly, they have few educational and vocational skills. They lead chaotic lives with little to no employment, homelessness, and poverty. This pathway involves women with serious mental health problems, psychosis, self-harm and suicide attempts who are aggressive, violent, and noncompliant.

As can be seen in these descriptions, the manifestations of gender-neutral or gender-specific issues tend to differ according to the specific pathway that led the criminal behaviour. For example, trauma issues, dysfunctional relationships and mental health problems appear particularly relevant for women found in the ‘battered women’ and the ‘antisocial aggressive women’ pathways. In contrast, lifestyle instability, drug abuse problems, low educational achievement and the presence of antisocial attitudes and peers are the criminogenic factors typically found among women in the ‘poor marginalized antisocial’. Of course, it is important that these pathways are prototypes. Some overlap in characteristics among various women can be expected.

Interventions for Adult Female Offenders

Therapeutic interventions for female offenders, just like with all offenders, aim to reduce the likelihood of future offending by addressing the issues that have led the woman into the criminal behaviour. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, there has been a long tradition of applying male-based knowledge to understand criminal offending by women. This tradition has also included ‘adapting’ for criminalized women therapeutic interventions developed and validated for criminalized men by simply changing “he” for “she” in the material. Such approaches have been criticized for failing to take into consideration risk and receptivity factors that are specific to women (e.g., Covington & Bloom, 2006). These criticisms have led to the development of gender-informed interventions that attend to differences in gender responsiveness to treatment while ensuring that the relevant criminogenic factors are addressed (Van Dieten, 2022). Interventions may range from single issue treatment programs (e.g., substance abuse treatment) to more complex interventions that simultaneously address several criminogenic needs problems (e.g., trauma-informed violence prevention program – Covington, 2022). There are universal gender-informed principles that should be incorporated in women offenders’ treatment programmes, regardless of whether the treatment is intended to address general criminal behaviour, substance abuse problems, violent behaviour, domestic violence or sexual offending. Specifically, treatment programs for women offenders must be based on an empirical model of offending among women, address the factors that have led to the offending behaviour and put the women at risk of reoffending, be delivered at an intensity that ensures sufficient opportunities for change, and attend to gender-responsiveness issues (Van Voorhis, 2022).

What is Treatment Responsivity?

In the same way that correctional interventions should be associated with an appropriate theoretical and empirical framework about the causes of criminal behaviour, the choice of treatment modalities delivered to offenders should be based on empirical evidence. The types of treatment that have been empirically demonstrated to be effective with all offenders, male or female, are cognitive and behaviourally based structured interventions (Andrews & Bonta, 2010; Dowden & Andrews, 1999). This type of treatment entails the combined use of various therapeutic techniques that include demonstrating and reinforcing vivid alternatives to pro-offending styles of thinking, feeling, and acting; reinforcement of anti-criminal and prosocial behaviour; graduated practice of new skills in treatment; identification and removal of obstacles toward increased levels of anti-offending behaviour; and cognitive restructuring. During treatment, the woman should learn to recognize the connections between her cognitions, emotions, and behaviour.

The responsivity principle also specifies that the intervention must take into consideration individual characteristics that impact on the offender’s ability to benefit from treatment (Bonta & Andrews, 2016). Within this context, gender is a general responsivity issue that permeates all aspects of treatment (Van Voorhis, 2022). Andrews and Bonta (2010) have identified the fundamental characteristics of staff that have demonstrated value regardless of the therapeutic context or client population. While they apply to all offenders, there is evidence that these staff characteristics are particularly important when providing treatment to female offenders (van Wormer, 2010). These characteristics include:

  • The ability to convey acceptance, caring and concern for the client: These qualities are conveyed in the therapist’s tone of voice and manner of emphasizing words and help the therapist relate to the women in clear, open, caring, and enthusiastic ways.

  • Accurate empathy: the ability to see the world through the client’s point of view. This does not imply that the therapist agrees with the point of view. It simply means that the therapist is able to understand, without necessarily agreeing with, the position of the client. Within this context, it is important to not confuse acceptance of and empathy for the offender with unconditional acceptance of the offender’s distorted views of herself, her offending, and others. The latter is actually counter-therapeutic for the women in treatment. Accurate empathy also helps the therapist with the important tasks of distinguishing between rules and requests, monitoring, reinforcing compliance, and ensuring they are not engaging in interpersonal dominance of the woman.

  • Genuineness: the therapist is honest with him/herself as well as with the client. The therapist must also convey this genuineness to the client. This entails not only providing positive reinforcement, but also telling a woman in treatment what she does not want to hear. Such comments, however, are always provided in a non-judgmental way that communicates genuine concern for the client.

  • Rapport: when rapport is established, the woman sees the therapist as someone who is ‘tuned’ into her feelings and attitudes; who is sympathetic, empathic and understanding; who is accepting of the client and all her faults; and with whom she can communicate. Rapport not only helps toward establishing the therapeutic relationship, it also helps the women accept feedback from the therapist and understand that a healthy relationship may entail disagreements and challenges.

Also acknowledging the importance of a gender-sensitive approach to the treatment of women offenders, Van Wormer (2010) proposes an organizing framework she describes as a “five-stage gender-based empowerment scheme” (p.189) that she considers essential for effective treatment with women offenders. These stages include building a therapeutic relationship; enhancing motivation for change; teaching coping skills; promoting healing; and enhancing generativity, which means making a contribution to others. Over the course of treatment, these overlapping processes will help the woman recognize, address and manage the issues that have led to her offending behaviour, develop healthier lifestyles, and reach out to others that will help her sustain her new life.

Relational Theory and Implications for Treatment

Because the lives and experiences of women differ from those of men, these problems tend to manifest themselves in gender-specific ways and contexts. Gender-responsive treatment therefore requires that the female-specific manifestations of these problems are understood, and the gendered contexts that surround them are taken into account when providing services to female offenders. While healthy connections are important for all human beings, they appear to play a particular role in the psychological and emotional well-being of women (Gilligan, 1982). In comparison to men, women tend to have greater needs for healthy connections to significant others including children and family, as well as the broader community. In addition, women’s ability to deal with stress is greatly improved when supportive social networks are available. As such, female offenders typically require much more extensive support than men to improve their general functioning and manage stress (Rumgay, 2004). As was evident in the various pathways to offending among women, healthy connections with others and healthy supportive social networks are features typically lacking among female offenders. Interventions for female offenders should therefore be based on a relational model that provides these women with previously lacking positive relationships experiences.

As explained by Covington and Bloom (2006), a relational model entails the recognition that women’s psychological needs are best met when women learn to establish and maintain meaningful connections with others in their lives rather than simply separate themselves from problematic relationships. This model is based on research showing that while all humans seek both connection with and differentiation from others, women need more connections while men require more differentiation (Gilligan, 1982). Criminalized women tend to have particular relational deficits and their offending behaviour is often tied to either their romantic relationships or their own victimization histories. Within treatment, an overarching goal of a relational approach is the identification and resolution of relational issues connected to the treatment targets. Treatment also includes the provision of opportunities for women to ‘test’ their new relationship skills in non-threatening ways, particularly when the focus is on their ability to develop and maintain a more stable life with less dependence on unhealthy others. Contextually, the relational model also provides a safe and supportive environment in which a woman can experiment with appropriately challenging others and being appropriately challenged. This particular aspect is important to help counteract the passive acceptance or normalization of abuse within relationships commonly found among female offenders, thereby helping them develop and practice new boundary and other relationship skills needed to establish healthy and abuse-free connections with others.

Because of the gendered nature of women’s lives and experiences, the inclusion of women in male offenders’ treatment programs is not recommended. The evidence indicates that women benefit more in the short and long term from single-gender programs when dealing with deeply personal issues connected to their problematic behaviour (Claus, Orwin, Kissin, Krupski, Campbell, & Stark, 2007). Mixed-gender groups can be utilized during later phases (e.g., maintenance programs) after the woman has made sufficient progress on offense-related issues such as intimacy and dependency problems, substance abuse issues, and/or victimization-related problems and she is able to establish the appropriate boundaries needed for healthy relationships (Covington & Bloom, 2006). As an aside, single-gender groups appear to be more helpful to men as well. Smith-Lovin and Brody (1989) have found that men in single-gender therapy groups stayed on topic and were more supportive of each-other than those in mixed-gender groups. In those groups, men interrupted women much more frequently than other men, and did so to establish dominance. As a result, they demonstrated less support toward both male and female group members, and the flow of ideas would become interrupted – which is clearly not desirable when dealing with therapeutic issues. Further, findings indicate that gender composition of groups does impact the content and style of group interactions; both men and women become less effective in their communication patterns in such circumstances (Hodgins, El-Guebaly, & Addington, 1997). Hence, women would have much greater difficulties establishing the important supportive relationships they need to improve their lives in mixed-gender groups. It is by understanding and attending to these gender differences that therapeutic services for women offenders will truly be gender-responsive.

Case Illustration: Tracy

Tracy is a 26-year-old woman convicted of aggravated assault for the stabbing of her boyfriend. The offense occurred when Tracy and the victim, her boyfriend of 18 months, got into a verbal altercation, which escalated into a physical fight during which Tracy grabbed a knife and stabbed him.

Tracy was raised by both parents until the age of 14, when her father left the family. Alcohol consumption was constant in her childhood home. While intoxicated, her parents would physically fight with each other. The children would also be physically abused. At age 11, for a period of several months, Tracy was sexually abused by her uncle. She began consuming alcohol at age 12 and began consuming prescription medication (OxyContin) at age 15. Tracy has only a grade 10 education. Her employment history is sporadic and includes primarily waitressing and sales. Tracy has been fired from positions and left positions without a new job. Prior to the offense, Tracy had been involved in a number of relationships, all of which were characterized by substance abuse and mutual violence. Emotionally, Tracy experiences much anger, aggressiveness, and negative feelings as a result of her childhood and substance abuse issues. She has difficulty controlling her anger, particularly when under the influence of substances. She also demonstrates poor judgment and has a tendency to act violently and impulsively without thinking of the consequences of her actions.

Conclusions: A Final Note on Interventions for Justice-Involved Girls and Women

The high prevalence of victimization issues among justice-involved girls and women has led to the development of gender-informed treatment programs that take into therapeutic account the interrelationships between trauma and criminogenic factors. This approach recognizes that a traumatic experience such as childhood sexual victimization is associated with a wide range of difficulties that tend to persist in adulthood, and affect multiple domains of functioning, including cognitive, affective, relational, and sexual (Briere & Jordan, 2009). For example, substance abuse is a well-established criminogenic factor for both male and female offenders. Among women, however, substance abuse problems have a stronger relationship with recidivism (Andrews et al, 2011), indicating a gender-specific manifestation of this problem. This gender specificity occurs because female offenders tend to develop their substance abuse problems in response to their early victimization before they became involved in criminal behaviour (Blanchette & Brown, 2006). Consequently, successful resolution of substance abuse problems among female offenders frequently necessitates the concurrent resolution of trauma (Saxena, Messina, & Grella, 2014).

Gender-informed interventions for female offenders therefore require that not only a relational model of treatment be adopted but also that trauma issues are taken into consideration using a trauma-informed approach. This integrated treatment approach considers the interrelated levels of trauma, mental health issues, substance abuse and other criminogenic problems in order to maximize the woman’s ability to develop new and healthier behavioural competencies (Covington, 2022; Saxena et al., 2014). Evidence indicates that this type of approach maximally reduces the likelihood of recidivism among general and violent female offenders (Gobeil, Blanchette, & Steward, 2016; King, 2015) but only among those who have victimisation and trauma histories. Adding a trauma-informed approach component to interventions for women without such histories, however, may actually be detrimental to their treatment progress (Saxena et al., 2014). These findings indicate that a blanket application of identical interventions for all female offenders is not useful. Careful treatment planning is needed to ensure that the woman’s treatment needs are appropriately matched with the relevant interventions.


  • Prevention and intervention efforts should start early to help at-risk adolescent females or females with early-onset antisocial behaviour. Early intervention strategies should promote an array of social and personal skills as well as help improve the mental health of these adolescents to increase the likelihood of a successful transition to adulthood.

  • When designing treatment programs for adolescent females with antisocial behaviour, potential iatrogenic effects of interventions should be considered (e.g., in group settings where contagion is likely to occur because deviant youths are placed together). Further experimental and longitudinal studies are needed to test the effectiveness of interventions targeting females with antisocial behaviour and disseminate the most promising programs.

  • It may not be necessary to design and implement entirely distinct programs for boys and for girls with antisocial behaviour. However, programs integrating components that may be specifically relevant for girls (e.g., comorbid mental health problems, history of trauma and abuse, sexual history, and relational aggression) should be fostered.

  • Adult female offenders are responsible for approximately 20% of all criminal behaviour. They are responsible, however, for a smaller proportion of officially reported violent and sexual offenses. Further, they tend to have much lower rates of recidivism than males, particularly when only violent or sexual recidivism is considered.

  • Women exhibit different etiological pathways into criminal offending, some of which involves severe histories of childhood and adult victimization and the presence of related mental health issues. There exists a subgroup of female offenders who tend not to have victimization histories and who exhibit much more gender-neutral than gender-specific characteristics.

  • Healthy connections are particularly important for women’s emotional and psychological well-being. Gender- and trauma-informed interventions may be necessary in order to fully attend to the relational needs of female offenders while ensuring that the relevant criminogenic factors are addressed. Blanket applications of a specific treatment for all women are not recommended; treatment should be tailored to the woman’s specific needs.

Essay/discussion questions

Based on the information provided in the Case Study 1:

  1. On what trajectory should we classify Kate?

  2. What are the risk and protective factors?

  3. What interventions should we propose to help Kate and her son?

Based on the information provided in Case Study 2:

4. On what pathway should we classify Tracy?

5. What are her criminogenic factors?

6. What interventions should we propose to help Tracy?

Annotated references:

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Chesney-Lind, M., & Shelden, R. G. (2014). Girls, delinquency, and juvenile justice (4th ed.). Wiley Blackwell. This textbook pulls together literature on delinquency in girls, and covers topics such as the nature of their delinquency, their involvment in gangs, their experiences in the juvenile justice system and promising interventions.

Cortoni, F. (2018). Women who sexually abuse: Assessment, treatment, and management. Safer Society Press. This book provides an overview of best intervention practices with women convicted of sexual offenses.

Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Rutter, M., & Silva, P. A. (2001). Sex differences in antisocial behaviour: Conduct disorder, delinquency, and violence in the Dunedin Longitudinal Study. Cambridge University Press. This book presents rich research findings on sex differences in antisocial behaviour based on a cohort of boys and girls followed longitudinally from early childhood to early adulthood.


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