Female Offenders: Complex Life Histories


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Female offenders have complicated pasts. Image by shnwsk.

Female offenders have complicated pasts. Image by shnwsk.

What do women offenders have in common besides living behind bars?  Research into the life histories of female offenders shows a higher prevalence of substance abuse, mental illness, trauma, running away, and living in violent places.

Dana DeHart, Shannon Lynch and colleagues from universities in South Carolina, Idaho, Colorado, and Washington D.C. investigated the life stories of female offenders.

The researchers found the life histories of female offenders are complex, and suggest multiple interventions in the Psychology of  Women Quarterly, released by SAGE publications

Women Offender’s Demographics

Researchers interviewed 115 jailed women from five states.  Detailed life histories were taken by collecting both quantitative (numerical) and qualitative (narrative) data.  The stories of the women provided more context and understanding of the phenomena.

The ages of the women ranged from 17 to 55.   41% were white, 40% were black, 10% were Hispanic/Latina, 4% were Native American and the remaining 4% were multiracial.  American Indian women were the most likely to decline to participate, while Latina women were the least likely to decline.

27% had a GED or high school diploma. 46% of the women had completed some college, and almost half were employed.

Women in Jail: Life History Findings

This study found a variety of life history characteristics that set women offenders apart from the general population.

Substance Abuse:

Using the World Health Organization’s Composite International Diagnostic Interview or CIDI, researchers found that a higher percentage of the jailed women had a substance abuse disorder than in the population at large.
They report, “85% met diagnostic criteria for a lifetime SUD (abuse or dependence).” In supplementary material provided by co-author Shannon Lynch to Decoded Science, the CIDI finds a 29.6%  lifetime prevalence of SUD among women in general. 51% of the jailed women suffered from PTSD, compared with 9.7% of women in the general population.

Mental Illness:

The study reports that “half the women in the sample met diagnostic criteria for at least one form of serious mental illness (e.g., major depression, bipolar disorders, or psychotic spectrum disorders) during their lifetime.”

This figure is even more sobering when the young age of some of the women is taken into account.  In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, when DeHart was asked if even more of the women may experience mental illness, she replied, “that does seem feasible, given that onset for mental health problems can sometimes occur later in life.”

Trauma is higher in jailed women. Image by subewi.

Rates of trauma are higher in the life histories of jailed women. Image by subewi.


The lives of the jailed women were marked with stories of sexual, physical, and domestic abuse.  The authors report “sexual violence was experienced by 86% of women” including molestation before age 16, and forcible rape after age 16.  Witnessing community violence was common.  Running away was often described in terms of fleeing abuse at home.

In terms of offences, neither fighting or property crime were associated with mental illness.  Having run away, however, was associated with mental illness.

Witnessing violence was associated with “twice the risk for fighting or assaulting others relative to those who did not witness violence.”

Women in Prison: Appropriate Treatments Needed

The study authors write that the findings  “support the need for corrections-based or community-based treatment for system-involved women, as well as for clinical and legal advocacy for women with cooccurring disorders.”

In her interview with Decoded Science, DeHart notes “[t]hese women not only suffered extreme victimization and loss, but they also had mental health issues and substance abuse issues; thus, their treatment needs are complex and require coordinated multi-system approaches.”

As for prevention? Intervening to decrease sexual violence, substance abuse, and exposure to community and family violence in the lives of young women may lead to fewer women in jail, and fewer victims… who go on to create more victims.


DeHart, D., Lynch S. et al. Life History Models of Female Offending: The Roles of Serious Mental Illness and Trauma in Women’s Pathways to Jail. (2013). Psychology of  Women Quarterly. SAGE publications.

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