Meeting the Needs of Girls and Women in the Criminal Justice System through Gender-Responsive Services

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There is an ongoing debate about the extent to which specialized programs are needed for girls and women within the criminal justice system.  Scholars who have studied ways to successfully reduce recidivism assert that the same general principles of correctional intervention apply to both males and females.  In contrast, feminist scholars assert that specialized, gender-responsive practices are needed that recognize key psychological and social differences between males and females.  As a professor in the corrections and juvenile justice program my stance falls somewhere in the middle of these two positions.  

Before we can discuss the merits of gender-responsive services, we need to look at the tenets of evidence-based practice. Evidence-based practices, as related to the corrections system, are those that, through repeated studies, are shown to be associated with reductions in recidivism.  First, and foremost, studies show that treatment works.  That is, when compared to untreated offenders, treated offenders fare much better and see reduced rates of substance abuse and recidivism.  Second, the effectiveness of treatment programs varies significantly depending on the extent to which the programs adhere to a set of key principles. 

  • The Risk Principle
    Programs that match offenders to a level of treatment and control that is commensurate with their risk of recidivism will be more effective.  That is, those who are more likely to recidivate should receive more intensive treatment and monitoring. 
  • The Need Principle
    Directs programs to target criminogenic needs for change.  Criminogenic needs are those that are associated with the offender’s criminality.  If we address those needs, we have a better chance of reducing the likelihood of recidivism.  Some common criminogenic needs include antisocial peer associations and antisocial beliefs and values. 
  • Responsivity Principle
    This principle includes two components.  First, is general responsivity which suggests that programs should utilize cognitive-behavioral models of treatment, for example cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective type of treatment with offender populations.  Second is specific responsivity which suggests that individualized programs and services are needed to promote the likelihood of success in treatment.  For example, treatment that is culturally specific contributes to better treatment retention and, ultimately, better results. 

Research reveals that programs that adhere to the risk, need, and responsivity principles, are implemented as designed, and subjected to quality assurance measures contribute to greater reductions in recidivism.

Feminists assert that these principles were derived from studies of programs for males and question their applicability to females.  Their chief complaint is that these gender-neutral principles ignore the unique needs of girls and women and the contextual nuances of the treatment environment that might hinder positive transformation.  They argue that programs must be developed through a gender lens rather than merely tweaking male-oriented principles to accommodate females.  

To be fair, there is limited research that tests the efficacy of these “evidence-based practices” on female offenders.  But I believe that the knowledge gained from available recidivism studies provides enough evidence to support these principles of effective intervention with female offenders, and that the responsivity principle, in particular, guides the development of gender-responsive services. 

Given what we know about what works to reduce recidivism and the unique risks and needs of female offenders, the best therapeutic model for girls and women incorporates three key elements:  gender-responsive CBT, relational-based approaches, and trauma informed services. 

Despite evidence on the effectiveness of CBT in addressing women’s mental health problems, there is significant opposition to using cognitive-behavioral programming with female offenders.  The opposition stems, primarily, from the gender-neutral nature of popular models of CBT that are used in corrections.  Most models target antisocial attitudes and values through somewhat of a confrontational approach; studies suggest that most women do not exhibit these antisocial attitudes and values to the extent that men do, nor do they respond well to confrontation. 

Another problem with these male-oriented models is that they do not account for the cognitive-based risk factors most relevant for females. Nor do they recognize the cognitive-based strengths, or protective factors, that females exhibit.  Important risk factors for women include self-debasing distortions and an emotion-focused coping style. Important protective factors are better verbal skills and greater levels of empathy.  Moving On, a cognitive-based curriculum that targets these gender-specific factors, has produced positive results for female offenders.

The next key element for gender-responsive services is the relational model.  According to the relational model, women’s healthy development is contingent on the mastery of relationships.  Thus, interventions must provide girls and women with opportunities to build healthy connections.  This can be accomplished by attending to the development of a strong therapeutic alliance between girls and correctional personnel, intervening with the family, and providing services that bolster girls’ social support system in the community. 

Last, trauma informed services are needed to account for the high rate of victimization among justice-involved females.  This recommendation has to do with creating a positive and safe context for interventions to take place. Creating a trauma sensitive culture requires all persons within that environment to be trained on the effects of trauma and how they can avoid reenactment for girls and women.  Agencies who have implemented trauma sensitive therapy with girls have reduced the number of critical incidents and many have eliminated the need for physical restraint.  Programs for women that address co-occurring substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorders have also produced positive results.  

Further evidence that gender-responsive practices contribute to better outcomes was found in a meta-analysis of studies of correctional interventions for women.  The authors first found that women who participated in treatment had significantly greater odds of success than women who did not participate in treatment, and that gender-neutral and gender-responsive interventions were equally effective.  However, further analysis revealed that among those studies that involved higher methodological quality, gender-responsive interventions were significantly more likely to be associated with a reduction in recidivism than were gender-neutral interventions. 

Although some progress has been made, a lot of work remains before we can adequately address the needs of girls and women in our juvenile and criminal justice systems.  Agencies need to build organizational capacity for addressing the needs of girls and women by hiring the right staff, providing specialized training, and investing in gender-responsive services.  Scholars need to build a stronger evidence-base for gender-responsive programming.  And we need champions for girls and women; leaders who will keep the needs of women and girls at the forefront of correctional reform. 

Interested in advancing your career? Earn your online bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited university that has been an online education leader for more than 15 years. EKU’s 100% online corrections and juvenile justice studies program provides students with the critical thinking and leadership skills needed to build a rewarding career in the criminal justice field. Complete the learn more form for more information about how our corrections and juvenile justice studies program can help advance your career. 

By: Betsy Matthews, Ph.D., associate professor, EKU School of Justice Studies

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