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Today, we live in a gendered world; the differences are deemed by society and society defines what activities are appropriate for each gender. Men are perceived as the more reckless gender that is seen as violent and angry, but they are the leaders and problems-solvers of our society. Women are perceived as the gender that sets the example of appropriate behaviour - that is law-abiding, caring by nature and passive rather than aggressive by nature (Stainsby 2002). When looking at the statistics of incarceration for violent crimes, men dominate the statistics because violence is seen as an essential aspect male virility. When a woman commits a crime, she is seen as deviant and confronting to the traditional gender role that society places on her. In terms of criminal behaviour and the experience within the criminal justice system, there are marked differences between male and female offences. In New Zealand, by far, the majority of crime, which includes high level violent offending, is committed by men and women tend to commit lower level, non violent offences, and do not tend to pose a risk to society. Though in recent decades, the number of women who are under criminal justice supervision or who are incarcerated has increased which leads to believe that the experience within the criminal justice system is ever-becoming a gendered experience because women are being incarcerated for lower-level offending, in comparison to their male counterparts, because they are seen as deviants to the norm of female behaviour.
Male and female offenders share a lot of characteristics and are very similar in terms of their racial and ethnic background, age and socioeconomic status. Incarcerated females tend to be young (two thirds are under the age of thirty-four), members of a minority group (more than 60%), have no partner, spouse, or significant other (80%), undereducated (40% did not graduate high school) and unemployed (Beck and Mumola. 1999). Contrasting to men, a large majority of female offenders are unmarried, are mothers of children under the age of 18, and are daughters who have grown up in homes without both parents present (Chandler, 1973:7; Freedman, 1981). In addition a distinctive characteristic of females who are incarcerated is their likelihood of having survived sexual and/or physical violence, particularly by a male relative or intimate partner (Greenfeld & Snell, 1999). Research also shows that incarcerated females have experienced unusually high rates of extreme physical and emotional abuse from parents or caregivers, involvement in drugs, and prostitution, whether or not they were imprisoned for these crimes(Harlow, 1999).
When women commit a criminal act, especially a violent act, they evoke different reactions from members of the criminal justice system because their behaviour contradicts their gender role assumptions of being passive and law-abiding. Female criminal behaviour tends to appear as a product of mental, emotional, physical and social problems. The impact of physical and emotional abuse on women is often intensified by excessive disadvantages and economic problems (Chandler, 1973:7; Freedman, 1981). Early classical criminology theorists, such as Lombroso (1895) and Pollak (1950) have examined female criminality. Historically, these theories about female criminalist have ranged from biological to psychological and from economic to social. However these cultural and social theories have been largely applied to men and the pathological explanations have been applied to women (Worrall, 1990; Horn and Evans, 2000). For example Lombroso and Ferrero's work on theorising female offending was based on biological elements. They studied skulls, brains and bones of female offenders and prostitutes and concluded that there were far less female criminals than males and that prostitutes had more anomalies than female offenders or normal women (Lombroso and Ferrero 1895: 85). The discipline of classical criminology was highly criticised by feminists from the 1970's because of its blatant marginalisation of women in the studies conducted by Lombroso and secondly, there was a lack of appropriate gender analysis from when the women were studied and it was studied in a very limited and distorted manner (Smart 1977: 26)
Heidensohn criticised that the ideas carried by Lombroso and Ferraro were fundamental assumptions carried by men (Heidensohn 1985: 96). Heidensohn puts forward a different perspective when she examines how the social understanding of femininity affects women's experience within a criminal justice system. She argues that women tend to be treated more harshly than men do in cases where they do not fit the conventional social norms of being a woman. Heidensohn (1985: 44) also notes, that a female who conforms to the stereotypical gender norm expectation tend to experience less harsher outcomes that female offenders who do not. There are two features that Heidensohn notes in the harshness portrayed at female offenders. Firstly is the double deviant argument (Heidensohn 1985: 46-7): which means that not only has the female broken the law, but she has also offended the "more fundamental norms which govern sex-role behaviour" (Heidensohn 1970: 134 in Heidensohn 1985: 47). This is because a female appearing in court is a very rare occurrence and seems like a less comprehensible idea than a man appearing before the court (Heidensohn 1985:47). The way that females are punished for deviant sexuality and sex roles is the second aspect of harshness towards female offenders (Heidensohn 1985: 47-56). Here Heidensohn identifies four assertions (1985: 48-51); First, courts operate a 'double standard' with sexual behaviour only punishing girls for sexual activities. Sexual behaviours by girls were perceived as morally outrageous and so they are dealt with more punitively. Second, court personnel 'sexualise' female delinquency, exaggerating their offence. Next, 'wayward' girls end up being punished without actually committing a crime. Finally, women and girls who do not comply with conventional female stereotypes receive excessively punitive treatments, creating greater chances of being imprisoned.
Modern society knows more about women and crime than that which was understood 20 years ago. Criminology itself has been an area that has focused on male offending and incarceration and the criminal acts of males which include white collar crime, street crime, violent crime and organised crime (Goodstien, 2000). Many theories of crime have been developed as an explanation about why males offend with little or no focus that see women as criminal or perpetrators of criminal acts. There are substantial differences in the crimes committed by men and women, and the few theorists that looked at female criminality employed gross assumptions about females that were sexist and had no empirical support. Criminology has then applied traditional theories of crime, which explain male criminality, to women. This has created a problem of generalisation because its approach has been tainted by characteristics which explain a male approach to social reality and criminality. In this sense, it has made women invisible in the criminal justice system because they are repressed by a male understanding of crime and criminal offending. This has led a lot of female offenders to experience a high experience of an extremely gendered experience of the criminal justice system.