In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Counseling Female Offenders

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Manuals and Guides
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Rationale for Gender-Specific Treatment
  • The Women’s Prison Environment

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Social Work Counseling Female Offenders
Katherine van Wormer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0056


Gender-specific programming is viewed as essential to effective work with girls and women in the juvenile justice and criminal justice systems. Gender-specific programming can be defined as treatment that is especially designed to meet the needs of persons based on biological, psychological, and social needs unique to one’s gender. Regarding female offenders, the three strongest arguments for gender specific programming are women’s unique biology, cultural role expectations and vulnerabilities, and gendered pathways into crime. This entry identifies resources that pertain to working with girls and women who are in the criminal justice system, some confined in institutions, others participating in community correctional programs. There are few books and articles specific to social work in this specialized field, and most of the material derives from the criminal justice and feminist literature. Although there is extensive literature on recommended treatment for female offenders, the gap between theory and practice is large. Some of the literature in this entry derives from Canadian and British sources—a fact reflective of the research being done in progressive correctional counseling—and concerns treatment innovations in the system and writings on deficiencies in the treatment. That girls and women in trouble with the law have special needs is a major theme throughout all the literature. Helpful therapeutic strategies that are contained in the listings in this article are restorative justice, transcendental meditation, and strengths-based and trauma-informed practices. Because of the heavy involvement of girls and women with substance use and mental disorders in the criminal justice system, whole sections on these topics are included as well as a section on co-occurring disorders. Where possible, the selected readings contain material related to treatment interventions with female offenders.

General Overviews

Bloom, et al. 2008 helped revolutionize treatment of female offenders with a focus on the need for gender-responsive or gender-specific strategies. The book’s authors were actively writing in the 1990s. Chesney-Lind’s writings, which are listed in other sections of this article and also stem from the 1990s, made researchers and public authorities aware of the unique pathways leading girls into crime, and also had a big impact. The gender-responsive strategies articulated by these writers led to endorsement by the federal government of a gender-specific approach to the treatment of girls and women in the system. Research shows that women who get in trouble with the law are more likely than men to misuse drugs or alcohol, to have a background of serious victimization, to have low self-esteem, to have had relationships with criminally prone men, and to have been a victim first and an offender second. One strategy that is easily tailored to the needs of women is restorative justice or victim-offender conferencing. For a comprehensive overview of female offenders within the correctional system, one can turn to Bureau of Justice Statistics 2015. This resource provides relevant statistics, while the National Institute of Corrections directs users to information on many areas of study and research related to female offenders. For more news-oriented updates and editorial material on gendered treatment, the website of the National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women (NRCJIW) is an invaluable source of material.

  • Bloom, Barbara, Barbara Owen, and Stephanie Covington. 2008. Gender-responsive strategies: Research, practice, and guiding principles for women offenders. Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections.

    This summary of earlier research presents a realistic picture of the challenges facing people who work with female offenders, given that public policy often fails to meet the specific needs of women offenders.

  • Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2015. Statistics on women offenders. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.

    An overview of statistics gathered by the US Department of Justice on female offenders and victims is an excellent digest of the data gathered on female offenders from various correctional and other government sources.

  • National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women.

    The NRCJIW Resource Library serves as a clearinghouse for documents, links, and access to additional resource centers on criminal justice–involved women. Access is available here to newsletters, monographs on gender-informed strategies, conference news, and updates on policy developments.

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