Member Groups

The Catalyst
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law

May 2010, vol. 15, no. 3

Women in the criminal justice system—Justice delivered or denied?

On February 25, 2010, the Standing Committee on Women and the Law hosted a CLE program on Women in the Criminal Justice System—Justice Delivered or Denied? The program was co-sponsored by the ISBA Criminal Justice Section Council and the ISBA Standing Committee on Delivery of Legal Services. The purpose of the program was to examine the characteristics of women who are classified as criminal offenders, the risk factors contributing to female crimes, and the gender responsive practices of law enforcement, prison staff and administrators, social service providers, and attorneys prosecuting and defending these women.

The program offered several dynamic and exceptionally knowledgeable speakers who are intimately involved with the issues surrounding women in the criminal justice system and their children and families. Jessica Ashley, a researcher with the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (“ICJIA”) in Chicago, reported on a recent study conducted by the ICJIA that examined women criminal offenders that were presently incarcerated and their crimes.1 The study was conducted by a group of ICJIA staff researchers and law students who interviewed a reliable sample of women inmates on their crimes, life history, and any history of trauma/abuse, mental health and substance abuse issues. In her report, Mrs. Ashley detailed the profile and characteristics of women who are classified as criminal offenders, the types of crimes they commit, and the various influences and risk factors that contribute to the crimes committed by women. Mrs. Ashley reported that the majority of crimes committed by women are classified as drug offenses (39%) and property offenses (37%) with the remainder being comprised of various violent offenses, most often simple assault. Mrs. Ashley indicated that there seems to be a growing trend in violent offenses committed by young women and juvenile girls, although it is still unclear as to why violent offenses among this population is growing. Mrs. Ashley reported that approximately 98% of the women interviewed reported experiencing physical abuse in their lives with 10 years of age being the average age of onset of the abuse. Of these women, 77% were abused by intimate partners, 73% were abused by family members, and 31% were abused by strangers. Many women also reported being sexually abused (75%) with 11 years of age being the average age of onset of the sexual abuse. Mrs. Ashley indicated that the research numbers indicated that there was a strong correlation between sexual abuse and physical abuse in these women. Not surprisingly, many of these women reported mental health and substance abuse issues as well. Moreover, Mrs. Ashley reported that there was a weak but significant correlation between childhood sexual abuse of these women and a current violent offense. This correlation certainly warrants further research but Mrs. Ashley suggests that the implications for practice and policy should be early intervention in girls’ and women’s lives to stop the abuse before victimization and trauma escalates in order to reduce the incidence of violent offenses that may be committed by these women in the future.

The program also focused on the criminal justice system’s response to these women and whether or not the system is effective in reducing crimes committed by women. The Honorable Paul Biebel, Jr. of Cook County, Randy Rosenbaum, the Champaign County Public Defender, and Lori Levin, the former executive director of the ICJIA and now a practicing trial attorney, discussed the different types of programs available to these women before incarceration including the Mental Health Court of Cook County and drug treatment programs overseen by Judge Biebel and various other programs throughout the state. The panel reported that these programs are largely successful resulting in a significant decrease in arrests and convictions after graduation from the programs.

Deborah Denning, the coordinator of the Women and Family Services Division of the Illinois Department of Corrections (“IDOC”) also reported that programs for women and their families such as mental health, counseling, and substance abuse treatment programs in prison also appear to reduce the rate of recidivism among women offenders. Mrs. Denning first gave a history of women in prison and the criminal justice system’s historic response to women offenders. She reported that the first prison for women in Illinois opened in November 1931 as the Oakdale State Reformatory for Women which is now known as the Dwight Correctional Center in Dwight, Illinois. Amazingly, prior to 1931, there were no separate housing facilities for women offenders and these women offenders were actually kept in the cellar of the Menard Correctional facility and warden’s attic! Historical prison documents indicate that the majority of the women “offenders” that were housed at the Reformatory in the 1930s were in “prison” for infractions such as bad etiquette and manners. Mrs. Denning reported that in preparation for this presentation she had searched some of the old warden and sociologist records of the women’s reformatory and found records describing these women as “whores and thieves of another kind.”

Fortunately, the department of corrections has come a long way since then with respect to its practices and response to women offenders but all of the speakers and participants agreed that more work and additional gender responsive practices and programs are needed to really address the particular needs of women in the criminal justice system. Currently, the Women and Family Services Division of IDOC has a variety of programming initiatives and resources that provide a holistic approach to servicing these women and their children. Some of IDOC’s programs offer services to address the women’s spiritual, mental health, educational, safety, life skills, parenting, and substance abuse issues. IDOC also has programs for women who are preparing to transition out of prison and reintegrate into the community. These transitional programs include case management, mentoring, job preparation, and a moms and babies program designed to reunite and reestablish the bond between the mother and child before the mother is released from prison. IDOC also collaborates with other legal services and social services organizations such as the Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM), the Lutheran Social Service of Illinois Prisoner and Family Ministry (LSSI), and Grace House of St. Leonard’s Ministry in an effort to support the woman’s successful reentry into the community and restore the relationships between incarcerated women and their families.

The program ended with two spectacular success stories of formerly incarcerated women. Ms. MoDena Stinnette was formerly incarcerated and now works for the Gateway Foundation after earning her Bachelor’s Degree and has her MBA. She is currently working on her Ph.D. Ms. Sheryl Abel was formerly incarcerated and is the CEO/Founder of H.O.P.E. Inc. “Helping Ourselves, Prisoners & Women Ex-Offenders.” I encourage everyone who missed the live program to get the DVD! ■


1. The ICJIA study on women criminal offenders should be completed in the Spring of 2010 and will be available for viewing on the ICJIA Web site at <>.