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Life-History Models of Female Offending: The Roles of Serious Mental Illness and Trauma in Women’s Pathways to Jail

From Psychology of Women Quarterly

How do pathways to jail vary for females who are victims of specific types of trauma? This study pinpoints the types of trauma such as caregiver violence, witnessing violence, and intimate partner violence, that lead to specific types of offending later in life and offers explanations based on real experiences.

Researchers conducted life-history interviews with 115 female inmates from five U.S. states. They wrote, “The research is critical to development of gender-responsive programming, alternatives to incarceration, and problem-solving court initiatives that address girls’ and women’s specific needs.” The researchers also found that the women they interviewed had high rates of mental health disorders, especially serious mental illnesses (50%) such as major depression, bipolar disorders, or psychotic spectrum disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder (51%), and/or substance use disorder (85%). “Given that mental health problems in offenders are linked to greater likelihood of violent crimes, longer sentences, rule violations, and physical assaults in the corrections environment, greater knowledge and understanding of these offenders and their needs is critical for the success of behavioral health treatment programs, jail management, and correctional staff safety.”


Our mixed-methods study advances understanding of pathways to offending for jailed women with and without mental illness. Life history interviews with 115 women from five U.S. states examined how onset of crime and delinquency varied based on mental health status and trauma exposure. Women in jails had high rates of mental health disorders, with a majority meeting lifetime diagnostic criteria for a serious mental illness (50%), posttraumatic stress disorder (51%), and/or substance use disorder (85%). Cox regression analyses were utilized to examine associations between life experiences and risk of engaging in specific criminalized behaviors. Serious mental illness was associated with substance use, running away as a teen, and drug offending. Substance use disorder was related to earlier onset of substance use and driving under the influence. Intimate partner violence increased women’s risks for property crimes, drug offending, and commercial sex work. Witnessing violence increased risks for property crimes, fighting, and use of weapons. Experiences of caregiver violence increased the risk of running away as a teen. Qualitative narratives were reviewed to provide insight into connections between women’s experiences and onset of criminal behavior. Findings demonstrate a need for gender-responsive and trauma-informed practices to address mental disorders and victimization among women offenders.

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Article details

Life History Models of Female Offending: The Roles of Serious Mental Illness and Trauma in Women’s Pathways to Jail Psychology of Women Quarterly 0361684313494357, first published on August 2, 2013 doi:10.1177/0361684313494357


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