Milne on why we need to keep talking about women and crime

Emma Milne

In this article, Emma Milne, co-editor of Women and the Criminal Justice System, explores why we need to keep talking about women and crime.

It is over 40 years since Carol Smart argued that women were side-lined in academic analyses of crime, criminal justice processes and political discourses of crime and control.1Since then, substantial academic work, particularly from feminist criminologists, has highlighted the importance of discussing women’s experiences regarding their involvement with crime and criminal justice. Certainly, changes have occurred since feminist researchers and activists first focused attention on women, and yet the situation is still grim. Close to one-in-three women will be victims of interpersonal violence and abuse;2women who are victims of violence are far more likely than men to have been attacked by a person with whom they are intimately acquainted;3 and, on average, two women are killed every week by a violent partner or ex-partner, which constitutes nearly 40% of all female homicide victims.4 The experience of offending is similarly gendered – women commit significantly less crime than men and their offending is qualitatively different;5women commit more acquisitive crime and are less involved in serious violence, criminal damage or professional crime compared to men;6 and women are reported to have different motivations for committing crime than male offenders.7

The gendered experience of offending and punishment was captured in The Corston Report, which reviewed the experiences of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system.8 Corston concluded that women have been marginalised in a system largely designed for men, that gender-specific responses are required for women who offend or are at risk of offending, and that equal treatment of the genders does not mean the same treatment. Following Corston, successive governments have committed to reducing women’s imprisonment and adoption of a more gender-informed response to women’s offending. However, rhetoric has not yet translated into action or policy.9 The conclusion from Corston that vulnerability is a common experience for many women offenders, due to childhood victimisation, mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, and abusive and violent interpersonal relationships, is mirrored in feminist research. A close connection between women’s offending and their prior victimisation is apparent, more than 50% of imprisoned women report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child, compared to 27% of men.10 The vulnerability of many women involved in crime and criminal justice was the driver for our recent publication Women and the Criminal Justice System: Failing Victims and Offenders? . The edited collection brings together academics and professionals to consider key issues in current criminal justice policy and practice and answer the important question: are women being failed by the criminal justice system?

One of the key ideas that is reflected throughout the text is that the criminal justice system is organised to respond to women involved in crime as either offenders or victims, and few mechanisms are in place to appreciate and capture the wider context of the lives of women who are likely to be arrested and come before the courts. It is this binary approach – victim or offenders – that we argue must be overcome to make the criminal justice system work for women. By developing a more holistic approach to women and crime, and so breaking down the silos that exist through policies and responses of criminal justice bodies and government services, we hope that the cycle of offending and/or victimisation that many women involved in crime and criminal justice experience can be halted.

The timeliness of the book is apparent when considering recent developments in government policy relating to women offenders and victims. Doubts now exists as to whether the government will fulfil its pledge to open five new “community prisons” for women by 2020, thus reducing the number of women being jailed for non-violent offences.11 Similarly, support for women who have been victims of crime has reduced, with the cutting of budgets of women’s refuges,12 and continued failings within criminal justice to support women who experience physical and sexual violence.13 These developments raise concerns over the future direction of support for women involved in crime. In this context, continued research in this area, and in the social sciences in general, is crucial. Academic research, in conjunction with professionals, charities and women involved in the criminal justice system, must continue to draw attention to these important issues; for example, the impact of prolonged reduction of budgets of public sector agencies that support women and families.

Women are dying.14 Academics in the social sciences, drawing on the evidence gathered through research, are one of the core group in our society who have a responsibility to hold the government to account.

This article was written for Palgrave’s campaign Social Science Matters, which can be viewed here.

1. Smart C (1977) Women, crime and criminology: a feminist critique. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
2. CSEW [Crime Survey of England and Wales] (2016) Intimate personal violence and partner abuse.  Available at: (Assessed 4 October 2017). Definition of interpersonal violence and abuse developed by Scally, M., Horvath, M. A. H., & Adler, J. R. (2017). Women’s experiences of child custody in the context of intimate partner violence and abuse. Oral presentation at the Psychology of Women Section Annual Conference. Windsor, UK. 12-14 July.
3. CSEW [Crime Survey of England and Wales] (2017) Domestic abuse, sexual assault and stalking [online] available at: (Assessed 4 October 2017).
4. Povey, D. (2005) Crime in England and Wales 2003/2004: Supplementary Volume 1: Homicide and Gun Crime. Home Office Statistical Bulletin No. 02/05. Home Office. London; Department of Health (2005) Responding to Domestic Abuse. DH. London; Wykes, M. and Welsh, K. (2009) Violence, Gender and Justice. London: Sage.
5. Ministry of Justice (2014) Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2013. Available at: (Accessed: 6 January 2018).
6. Gelsthorpe, L. and Wright, S. (2015) ‘The context: women as lawbreakers’, in Annison, J. Bradford, J. and Deering, J. (eds.) Women and criminal justice: from the Corston Report to transforming rehabilitation. Bristol: Policy Press.
7. Barlow, C. (2016) Coercion and women co-offenders: A gendered pathway into crime. Bristol: Policy Press; Milne, E. and Turton, J. (2018) Understanding Violent Women. In: Milne, E., Brennan, K., South, N. and Turton, J. (eds) Women and the Criminal Justice System: Failing Victims and Offenders? London: Palgrave Macmillan. 119-39.
8. Corston, J. (2007) The Corston Report. Home Office. Available at: (Accessed: 13 June 2018).
9. Earle J. (2018) Why Focus on Reducing Women’s Imprisonment?. In: Milne E., Brennan K., South N., Turton J. (eds) Women and the Criminal Justice System: Failing Victims and Offenders? London: Palgrave Macmillan. 187-219.
10. Williams, K., Papadopoulou, V. and Booth, N. (2012) Prisoners’ childhood and family backgrounds. London: Ministry of Justice. Available at: (accessed 13 June 2018).
11. Syal, R. (2018) MoJ postpones plans to reduce female prison population. The Guardian [online] 2 May. Available at: (accessed 13 June 2018); Shaw, D. (2018) Women’s prisons: Fresh doubts over government plans. BBC New [Online] 11 May. Available at: 13 June 2018).
12. Buchan, L. (2017) Women’s refuge budgets slashed by nearly a quarter over past seven years. The Independent [online] 17 October. Available at: (accessed 13 June 2018).
13. Day A.S., Jenner A., Weir R. (2018) Domestic Abuse: Predicting, Assessing and Responding to Risk in the Criminal Justice System and Beyond. In: Milne E., Brennan K., South N., Turton J. (eds) Women and the Criminal Justice System: Failing Victims and Offenders? London: Palgrave Macmillan. 67-94; Gray J.M., Horvath M.A.H. (2018) Rape Myths in the Criminal Justice System. In: Milne E., Brennan K., South N., Turton J. (eds) Women and the Criminal Justice System: Failing Victims and Offenders?London: Palgrave Macmillan. 15-41; Stanko OBE E.A., Hohl K. (2018) Why Training Is Not Improving the Police Response to Sexual Violence Against Women: A Glimpse into the ‘Black Box’ of Police Training. In: Milne E., Brennan K., South N., Turton J. (eds) Women and the Criminal Justice System: Failing Victims and Offenders?London: Palgrave Macmillan. 167-186.
14. Bulman, M (2018) Nearly 100 women die in prison over 11-year period due to ‘glaring failures’ by government, says report. The Independent [online]. 2 May. Available at: 13 June 2018); Public Leaders Network (2017) One woman dead every three days: domestic abuse in numbers. The Guardian [online]. 14 December. Available at: (accessed 13 June).

Previous posts

Linnéa Österman: Desistance, Structures, Agency and Policy: Presenting Penal Cultures and Female Desistance at Sheffield University