Are Criminal Women Getting a Free Pass?

If only 12.5 percent of women surveyed think that women have equal rights, they could point to the punishments meted out to women miscreants as proof.

The worldwide total of prisoners as of 2002 is 8,570,051, but only 4.4 percent (377,082) of thoseprisoners are women. The difference shows up just as drastically in prosecutions. Total prosecutionsamong the nations who reported to United Nations was 23,841,769, but women made up only 1,036,710 of that number – less than 5 percent of all prosecutions.

Is this because women are getting a free pass or are they simply less inclined to be criminals? That matter is still being hotly debated among sociologists, psychologists and criminologists. Outside of academia, however, there are a few statistics that you can use to fuel your own theories, or just for fun, disprove those of others.

To begin with, what kinds of crimes do women commit? According to Sex and Crime in our encyclopedia mirror, the crimes that women commit tend to be non-violent, making violent crimes the crimes of men, in great part. But can this be proved with numbers?

A quick search of FactBites turns up a collection of websites that talk about women and crime. One of them, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, says women only made up 8 percent of the total of violent felons in the U.S. Violent crimes are robbery, murder, assault and rape. At the same time, however, women made up 23 percent of property crime felons, and 17 percent of drug felons, the BJS reported. Another FactBites find commented that the only crime categories in the United Kingdom where women were higher offenders than men were T.V. licensing and prostitution.

The average length of sentences for violent offenders was 105 months, according to the Bureau of Justice report, and sentences for various property crimes, much lower. If women’s crimes tend toward the latter, this, by itself, would contribute to a much lower number of women in prison because they would be released sooner.

One sociologist, Otto Pollack, maintained in his book, the Criminality of Women, that women commit just as many crimes as men, but that they don’t get caught as often. Their crimes, he claimed were simply easier to hide. Based on mostly anecdotal information, he also asserted that the justice system is easier on women than on men.

Whether or not the statistics of Pollack’s time supported that, something has changed in recent years, notably in the United States. According to United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems, the number of incarcerated women in the United States leaped drastically, increasing by 44 percent between 2000 and 2002.

This is over twice the rate that male incarcerations increased and has sparked public debate that mandatory sentencing laws are taking their toll on the female population. With few exceptions, nations worldwide reported an increase in female prisoners. Only New Zealand, Chile, Czechoslovakia Portugal, Switzerland and Belarus reported a decrease from 2000 to 2002.

For all of that, the United States still locks up fewer women, as a percentage of the prison population, than eight other nations. Thailand’s prisoner population includes an astounding 20.3 percent women.

Only four nations report no female prisoners: Sudan, Liechtestein, Seychelles, and Tuvalu. Of those,Sudan reports no prisoners at all and 7 executions, so take those figures with a bit of caution.

Clearly, statistics alone are not going to tell the whole story any more than unsupported anecdotal material would. Put them together, though, and you might yet get a conclusive answer to these tricky questions.

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