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Biological And Psychological Theories Of Crime Criminology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2960 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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As the famous English playwright and poet, William Congreve, said in his play titled; The Mourning Bride: a tragedy;Heavn has no rage, like love to hatred turnd, Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorn'd". This famous quote is nowadays more known as "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" and I believe, shows the hidden power within a woman; the power to deceive the conventional image of a woman, that is to neglect all the characteristics often associated to a woman, and to commit crime. This in turn, I believe, is the reason why so many people are intrigued with learning about why women do what they do.

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Often enough, we tend to look at a woman as a gentle being, capable of bearing and taking care of children, someone who is calm and low tempered, as well as, capable of holding a family together. This, however, is the conventional portrayal of a woman and is highly associated with the 'Sex-role theory' by the Functionalists which explains the socialisation of females and males. This claim states that males are inclined to be tough, risk taking and to be aggressive, but females, on the other hand are socialised to be gentle. Hence, according to the functionalists, males are more likely to be criminals. Sociologist Frances Heidensohn also argues that women are less involved in crime because crime is gendered as a male activity whereas females exhibit 'soft' characteristics. Nonetheless, many women around the world have committed crimes, as can be seen in the case studies and statistics in the sections below. Women have loitered, stolen, stalked, and even murdered. This functionalist theory does not, in any way, explain why a woman, in the first place would commit crime, however, it does somewhat relate to a theory by Cesar Lombroso (1835-1909).

Lombroso believed that all crime was a "Biological Atavism". This involved the examination of the cranial capacity as well as the facial features which in turn could identify biological criminal traits. Lombroso concluded that females who committed crime had more masculine traits whereby the brain capacity and difference in skull was more inclined to that of a male. In his studies, results showed that female criminals also carried the worst possible female characteristics which include; a lack of sensitivity to pain as well as a lack for compassion which are generally controlled in women by what he called "feminine weakness and underdeveloped intelligence". This in turn, could mildly explain the vicious and dangerous personality of a female criminal. According to Lombroso's study, criminal women had "deficient moral sensibilities, unstable characters, excessive vanity, irritability, revengefulness, and an uncontrolled sexual desire." Lombroso went on to say that the only way to end female criminality was to prohibit criminal meaning so as to avoid the biological traits from passing onto another generation genetically.

More recent explanations look at hormones such as testosterone which is proven to control levels of aggression and anger. A certain James M. Dabbs, Jr, from the department of psychology at Georgia State University in Atlanta, conducted a lot of research on how high testosterone levels are linked to crimes. He noted that high testosterone levels were strongly linked to more violent crimes, and violations. This was also proven in women, whereby "high testosterone levels were related to crimes of unprovoked violence, increased numbers of prior charges, and decisions against parole". Dalton (1964) studied the effects of menstruation cycles upon female behaviour. Parker (1960) concluded that "sixty-two per cent of the crimes of violence committed by female prison inmates were committed in the premenstrual week". Parker claimed that hormonal or menstrual factors can influence women to commit crime in certain circumstances.

Although biology seems to produce a convincing starting point as to why women commit crime and is nowadays more commonly used as an explanation, sociologists often dismiss biological factors as they take a deeper look into the environmental background of women who commit crime and the society which they live in. Feminist Sociologist Carol Smart was a very important figure within the Feminist Criminology world. In her 1977 writing she stated;

"Our knowledge is still in its infancy. In comparison with the massive documentation on all aspects of male delinquency and criminality, the amount of work carried out on the area of women and crime is extremely limited"

Since her writing, one may actually find more theories and ideas related to female criminality, yet a few broad theories related to this aspect of sociology continuously overlook the idea that gender may indeed be a factor "influencing criminality". "This is despite the fact that official figures suggest that gender is perhaps the most significant single factor in whether an individual is convicted of crime" (Smart, 1977).

Women, due to the social portrayal of roles as already mentioned above, is depicted as someone who is unable to commit crime. This in turn leads us to the "Mad not bad" theory (Lloyd, 1995: xvii). This is the idea that a woman who commits crime must indeed be "mad" as opposed to "bad" since she "dared to go against [her] natural biological givens such as 'passivity' and a 'weakness of compliance'" (Lloyd, 1995). As a theory, this may, in turn, reflect the low number of female prisoners, however, if we had to apply this theory to Malta, research has shown that by the end of December 2011, Mount Carmel had 268 males and 252 females who formed part of the sleeping-in population. Although I am not able to say if any of these patients actually had anything to do with any sort of criminal behaviour, by simply looking at the numbers, one can conclude that the theory is inefficient in explaining the Maltese situation because the numbers of females to males is less.

Another theory is the "Liberation Theory" also known as Freda Adler's "theory of Emancipation". This theory deals with the idea that ever since the liberation of women, the rate of female criminality has increased. Research, however, shows that female criminality was on a rise before the liberation of women.

James and Thornton studied women prisoners and from their studies revealed that the women who were imprisoned originally came from poor and uneducated backgrounds. When asked for a reason as to why they offended, the responses received did not appear to be linked to 'liberation' (1980).

Upon looking for Sociological theories, I realised that Carol Smart was actually right in her accusation. Not a lot of sociological theories are in fact linked solely to female criminality. Sociological theories try to find a reason as to why people in general commit crime and rarely focus solely on female criminals. However, when looking for biological theories many were actually found and these seemed to focus a lot upon why females commit crime and what brings them to commit it. Could this mean that female criminality is largely linked to biology as opposed to environment, since research seems to direct us to this conclusion? Could female criminality be the perfect answer to the Nature vs. Nurture argument, again due to the theories found and how they are mainly linked to biology?

The nature vs. nurture argument is one that has been discussed for years, and continues to be discussed. This argument tries to figure out as to whether crime is something which is controlled genetically or environmentally. The Nativists take on the "extreme heredity Position" whereby they assume that the features together with the characteristics of a human being are a result of evolution and individual differences evolve from our unique genetic code. In other words, they take on the 'nature' approach, whereby our biology and genetic code can determine as to whether we are more likely to commit crime or not. For example, if my mother is a criminal, this theory believes that I too am very likely to become a criminal as was my grandmother. On the other hand we find the Empiricists (not to be confused with the scientific Empiricists). These are the environmentalists whom take up the nurture approach. They believe that at birth, everyone's mind is a 'tabula rasa' which means 'a blank slate' (a term often used by John Locke). Over time this tabula rasa is 'filled' as a consequence of experience (e.g. Behaviourism). In other words it is through experience that one might become a criminal and another may not.

Personally, I believe that no matter how much we try to wrack our brains to ultimately figure out the reason as to why females commit crime, it is not one that as such can be answered. We can continue trying to come up with theories, which will eventually always be criticized by someone who thinks otherwise. The truth is that every human being has their own way of thinking, and trying to come up with a universal explanation as to how people think or why they do what they do is rather impossible.

The Judiciary System and Female Criminals

Apart from theories regarding why women commit crime, other theories take a closer look into the judiciary system and female criminals. Many believe that female criminality and court sentencing are linked together in a very unusual manner. Some believe that the Judiciary system can ultimately be affected by such a thing as gender. In other words, some believe that females receive a different sentence than men for the sole reason that they are females. Some of these theories can be seen below.

A theory which looks at female criminality and sentencing is the 'Chivalry Theory'. This theory deals with the idea that female offenders tend to be sentenced in a more lenient manner than that of men. This theory is highly linked to the 'sex-role' theory presented earlier by the Functionalists. Females are seen as nurturers and caregivers, and hence this theory believes that females should be given a much more merciful sentence because they are weak and fragile. According to Otto Pollak (1950) in his book 'The Criminality of Women' men have a protective attitude towards women and hence

"Men hate to accuse women and thus send them to their punishment, police officers dislike to arrest them, district attorneys to prosecute them, judges and juries to find them guilty, and so on"

David Farrington and Alison Morris (1984) studied the sentencing of 408 theft cases in a magistrate's court. All these cases happened in Cambridge that same year. Around 110 of these offences were committed by women. Through these cases, it was shown that even though the male offenders received more severe sentences than the women did, research found that this difference had disappeared when the severity of the offences was then taken into account. Furthermore, Farrington and Morris concluded that 'there was no independent effect of sex on sentence severity.' Nagel and Hagan (1983)"believe that females are treated more leniently than males as long as they are committing less serious offenses and exhibit behaviours consistent with their "appropriate" gender role: acting passively"( Ruth T. Zaplin. Female Offenders: Critical Perspectives and Effective Interventions)

This leads us to the second theory related to the criminal justice system; 'The Evil Woman theory'. This theory deals with the idea that since women are stepping out of their social roles and actually committing crime they are treated in a harsher manner than men who commit the same crime.

It is hard for one to actually pinpoint which theory, if any, is most commonly put into practice. According to Joanne Belknap and Kristi Holsinger, it is important for us to keep in mind "that the hypothesis best reflecting reality may depend on the type of crime and stage of the system where the decision is made (i.e., policing, courts, and corrections)." In other words, each case will have to be taken individually and each stage will need to be looked at in depth.

The Maltese SituationC:UsersuserDesktopUNIVERSITYAssignementsprison StatisticsLogo.jpg


C:UsersuserDesktopUNIVERSITYAssignementsprison StatisticsStatistics per year.jpg

C:UsersuserDesktopUNIVERSITYAssignementsAnnual CCF Population.jpg

The above information has been obtained from the site http://www.crimemalta.com/prison.html. In turn, this information was provided by Corradino Correctional Facility, Valletta Road Paola, Malta, PLA 1518.

The tables and charts above present us with the exact number of prisoners present in the Maltese prison and the amount of males as opposed to females who are or have carried out a prison sentence. Through the tables, one can look at the prison population over the years, the population of prisoners monthly throughout the year 2011, the amount of prisoners over the months of 2012, as well as a weekly update of the current month.

The Maltese prison carrying capacity is actually meant to be 500 people. However, as one can note, the amount of prisoners actually staying in our Maltese prison adds up to over 600 people, of which only 45 are female prisoners. Looking through statistics, one can see the largest gap of prisoners between 2006 and 2007, whereby the amount of female prisoners increased by 12 whereas in the following years we can see that the number was kept rather constant.

Through these statistics, one can conclude that in proportion to the total amount of prisoners present, Malta has an extremely small number of female prisons. Nonetheless, this does not mean that actual female criminality is very low. One must keep in mind that a lot of crimes go unreported or undetected. Therefore, one cannot assume that there aren't many female criminals in Malta. In fact, it is known that a lot of domestic violence cases on men go unreported for several reasons, one being humiliation. As Katryna Storace stated in her article "THE UNFAIR SEX";

"Domestic violence has traditionally been understood as a crime perpetrated by domineering men against vulnerable women. But recent data is slowly beginning to reveal a growing number of male victims."

Ms. Ruth Sciberras, Manager of Domestic Violence Services at Appoġġ, the national social welfare agency, seconds the idea that a lot of domestic violence cases upon men are not the actual figures and that in actual fact "there is a hidden figure concealed". Such an example proves to one how the rate of female criminality in Malta could very well be higher than what our prison is indicating.

Even so, one cannot help but ask for the reasons as to why the 49 female prisoners are actually there. The following table, obtained from Formosa S., (2012) CrimeMalta, www.crimemalta.com presents us with a good idea of the offences for which women were incarcerated during the 2000s (2000-2009).


Over 10 Years











Breach of Conditions



Court Order



Conversion of Fines






Contempt of Court









Escaped from Custody






False Evidence
























Although Loitering is often the common assumption as to why women go to prison, the table above actually shows that women who have in fact ended up in prison were mainly for conversion of fines (which is when a person has received several fines, those fines are not paid, so therefore converted into a prison sentence), drugs and also theft. Through this research and statistics we are now not only able to determine the exact amount of women in the Maltese prison, but also have a clear indication of the crimes that are mostly committed by Maltese women of crime.

Case Studies

Here are two examples of the most Notorious female criminals;

Bonnie Parker

Famously known as "Bonnie and Clyde", were shot to death by officers on May 23, 1934 in Louisiana. They were believed to have murdered 13 people, and involved in several robberies as well as burglaries.

Aileen Wuornos

A former prostitute who was executed in 2002 for killing seven men in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As can be seen from all the research, a log of people have tried to find the reason and solution for women and criminality. Through shown statistics, Malta has a very low number of female criminals. This, of course, does not include hidden statistics - i.e. crimes which go undetected. The reasons as to why women end up in prison in Malta have also been shown to be 'safer' then those abroad, whereby very little lives have been taken away by Maltese female criminals. This topic has taught me a lot regarding the female sex and social expectations upon us. Nonetheless to every rule there is an exception, and no social construct can prevent criminality.


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