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Pathways to Crime

Summary and Keywords

Scholarship in criminology has focused on individuals’ pathways to crime—how life experiences, often beginning during childhood, lead to criminality in adolescence or adulthood. General frameworks for this research include life-course, developmental, and biosocial criminology. However, because the vast majority of the general pathways research literature was developed using samples of boys and men, scholars with a feminist theoretical background argue that such research is not truly representative of girls and women’s pathways to crime. While general theories of crime have been applied broadly, gender-specific pathways to crime account for important distinctions between male and female experiences.

Thus, gender (and sex), through biological differences, social norms, and expectations, shapes individual life experiences that result in distinct pathways to crime for men and women. Consequently, understanding criminality requires a full consideration of gendered experiences. Even though similar life events may occur with both men and women, individual responses and effects can vary greatly and lead to different pathways to criminal behavior. Accordingly, this article discusses pathways to crime though a gendered lens. First, men’s pathways to crime are presented, which have been traditionally represented through general criminological research. Next, women’s specific pathways to crime are discussed, developed primarily through the gendered pathways literature. Finally, future directions in pathways research are outlined.

Keywords: crime, gender, women, criminality, pathways, life course

Men’s Pathways to Crime

Life-Course and Developmental Criminology

Life-course/developmental theories of criminology exploded in the 1990s due to the large amount of longitudinal research on offending published during this decade. Examples of the most prominent published longitudinal studies include the studies by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Denver, Pittsburgh, and Rochester (Huizinga, Weiher, Espiritu, & Esbensen, 2003; Loeber et al., 2003; Thornberry, Freeman-Gallant, Lizotte, Krohn, & Smith, 2003), the Seattle Social Development Project (Hawkins et al., 2003), the Dunedin study in New Zealand (Moffitt, Caspi, Rutter, & Silva, 2001), Sampson and Laub’s (2003) deeper analyses on the Gluecks’ data (see below), and the Montreal Two Samples Longitudinal Study (Le Blanc & Frechette, 1989). Life-course/developmental criminology is mainly concerned with three topics: (1) the development of offending and antisocial behavior from childhood to adulthood, (2) the influence of risk factors and protective factors at different ages, and (3) the effects of life events on the course of development (Le Blanc & Loeber, 1998).

While traditional criminological theories aim to explain between-individual differences in offending, life-course/developmental theories aim to explain within-individual changes in offending over time. It is important to note that while some studies do include females within the sample, the findings of life-course/developmental theories generally apply to offending by urban males among a lower socioeconomic status (SES), with offending referring to the most common crimes, such as drug use, theft, robbery, and vandalism. The extent to which the general life-course/developmental theories apply to females or other types of offenses (i.e., white-collar crime) was not widely explored until more recently is discussed later.

Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck (1950) began their study of male juvenile delinquency in 1939 and compared 500 institutionalized delinquent boys to a matched sample of 500 non-delinquent boys from the Boston area. The boys in the study were matched by age, race/ethnicity, neighborhood characteristics, and intelligence. They concluded that delinquency results from the interplay between somatic (physique), temperamental, intellectual, and sociocultural (especially family) forces (Glueck & Glueck, 1950).

Decades later, Robert Sampson and John Laub were concerned with the entire life course—thus, they revisited the classic Gluecks’ study of antisocial boys (see Laub & Sampson, 2003; Sampson & Laub, 1993). Based on their findings, Sampson and Laub (1993) created an age-graded, informal social control theory. Their focus was on why people do not commit crimes. They suggested that a change in offending occurs due to turning points in adult life, such as joining the military, getting a stable job, and getting married. Since desistence from crime is beyond the scope of this article, we will now move to other prominent life-course/developmental theories.

Terrie Moffitt (1993) utilized findings of antisocial boys from the longitudinal Dunedin study (which had a sample of 535 males and 503 females from New Zealand) to argue that there are essentially two types of antisocial people: those who begin offending at an early age and persist beyond their twenties (life-course-persistent [LCP] offenders) and those who have a short criminal career limited to their teenage years (adolescent-limited [AL] offenders). It has been demonstrated repeatedly in previous research that the most persistent offenders make up only about 5% or 6% of offenders but are responsible for about 50% of known crimes (for full review, see Farrington, Ohlin, & Wilson, 1986).

One famous example of this finding was by Wolfgang and Figlio (1972), who studied 9,945 males born in 1945 in Philadelphia and found that 6% of offenders were responsible for more than half of the crimes committed. Further, they found that the high-rate offenders began their criminal careers earlier and continued them for more years (Wolfgang & Figlio, 1972). Generally, LCP offenders commit a wide range of offenses (including violent offenses) in large part due to early childhood neuropsychological deficits, such as cognitive deficits, undercontrolled temperament, and hyperactivity. These deficits often elicit environmental responses, such as poor or underprepared parenting and peer rejection in school, which send them on a trajectory of cumulative behavioral consequences. Together, the neuropsychological deficits and environmental responses explain much of why, by adolescence, LCPs engage in serious delinquency that continues into adulthood. Additionally, genetic and biological factors, such as a low heart rate, are important (Moffitt, 1993). AL delinquents, on the other hand, often commit “rebellious” non-violent offenses, such as vandalism. Moffitt argued that AL offenders suffer from a “maturity gap” created by the adolescent’s desire to be treated like an adult and often engage in a “social mimicry” of LCP delinquents’ behavior (Moffitt, 1993).

Because Moffitt’s (1993) AL-versus-LCP theory is one of the most prominent life-course/developmental theories in criminology, scholars have paid significant attention to it and have since expanded upon it greatly (see Moffitt, 2006, for an extensive review). One category of individuals with which Moffitt expressed the need for further research was adult-onset offenders. Moffitt was doubtful that these kinds of offenders existed, and she argued that abstainers in adolescence (those who were first arrested or convicted as adults) had previously offended but had not been caught.

McGee and Farrington (2010) tested the ideas of Moffitt utilizing the Cambridge Study (with a sample of 411 schoolboys) and found that only about one-third of the official adult-onset offenders who had self-reported being delinquent in their teenage years were realistically in danger of being convicted and further that adult-onset offenders typically committed different types of crimes than early-onset offenders, such as sex offenses and theft from work (McGee & Farrington, 2010). Another study by Zara and Farrington (2009) from the Cambridge sample concluded that adult-onset offenders tended to be qualitatively different from earlier-onset offenders, meaning they were nervous, had fewer friends, and were still sexual virgins at age 18 (Zara & Farrington, 2009). According to Thornberry and Krohn (2005), late starters (ages 18–25) find it hard to make a successful transition to adult roles such as employment and marriage (Thornberry & Krohn, 2005).

Many scholars have taken a separate approach to studying offending developmentally and over the lifetime by disregarding the idea of typologies. In the latest version of Sampson and Laub’s theory (2009), they argue against offender typologies and that offending decreases with age for all types of offenders. They further contend that long-term patterns of offending cannot be explained by individual differences or childhood/adolescent characteristics (Sampson & Laub, 2009).

Thornberry and Krohn’s interactional theory for males and females (2005) also does not support types of offenders but rather indicates that the causes of antisocial behavior vary for children who start being deviant at different ages. At the earliest ages (birth to 6 years), Thornberry and Krohn (2005) suggest that the three most important factors are neuropsychological deficit and difficult temperament (i.e., negative emotionality, fearlessness, and impulsiveness), parenting deficits (i.e., poor monitoring, inconsistent discipline, and physical punishment), and structural adversity (poverty, welfare dependency, and a disorganized neighborhood). Thornberry and Krohn (2005) utilized data from the Rochester Youth Development Study, a study of 1,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students in Rochester, New York (73% male and 27% female). From this sample, Thornberry and Krohn (2005) suggest that at ages 6–12, neuropsychological deficits become less important and neighborhood and family factors become salient. At ages 12–18, school and peer factors dominate and deviant opportunities, gangs, and deviant social networks are most important for onset.

To elaborate on the previous discussion of 18- to 25-year-olds from Thornberry and Krohn (2005), these individuals generally have cognitive deficits, such as low IQ and poor school performance, but they were protected from antisocial behavior at earlier ages because of a supportive family and school environment (2005). They further predict that late starters (ages 10–25) will show more continuity over time than those who start in adolescence (12–18 years) due to more cognitive deficits (2005). The most distinct feature of their interactive model is the emphasis on reciprocal causation, meaning that the child’s antisocial behavior elicits coercive responses from parents, school disengagement, and rejection by peers, which makes antisocial behavior more likely in the future (2005). Similar theoretical assertions regarding the coercive family process were made by Gerald Patterson and his research team at the Oregon Social Learning Center, which come from the fields of early childhood development and aggression (Patterson, 1982; Salisbury, 2011).

Similarly, Lahey and colleagues and Waldman and colleagues found that a substantial proportion of the genetic and environmental influences underlying conduct disorder were shared with the three socioemotional dispositions proposed by Lahey and Waldman (2005) (prosociality, daring, and negative emotionality) and that negative emotionality was the most important of these three (see Tackett, Waldmann, Van Hulle, & Lahery, 2011; Tackett et al., 2013; Waldman et al., 2011). An important implication of these findings is that Lahey and Waldman (2005) utilized data from the Developmental Trends Study, which is a longitudinal study of 177 males, and given this, the results cannot be generalized to females.

The final scholar discussed is Loeber (1993), who proposed a developmental pathways model to best fit the development of antisocial behaviors. The pathways model has three dimensions: an overt pathway, a covert pathway, and an authority conflict pathway. The overt pathway starts with minor aggression (i.e., annoying others), has physical fighting as a second step, and serious violence as the third step. The covert pathway starts prior to age 15 with minor covert acts (i.e., frequent lying), has property damage as a second step, has moderate delinquency (i.e., fraud) as a third step, and has serious delinquency (i.e., auto theft) as a fourth step. The authority conflict pathway starts prior to the age of 12 with stubborn behavior, has defiance/disobedience as a second step, and has authority avoidance (i.e., truancy) as a third step. Research from the Pittsburgh Youth Study (a sample of three cohorts of boys who were in the first, fourth, and seventh grades) showed that the development of externalizing problems in boys took place systematically rather than randomly, best fit three pathways rather than a single pathway (pathways are not mutually exclusive), and that boys typically followed an orderly progression from less to more serious problem behaviors from childhood to adolescence (Loeber, Keenan, & Zhang, 1997; Loeber et al., 2005).

The scholars mentioned above aimed to generalize their findings across gender, but given the small percentage of females in the Thornberry and Krohn (2005) sample (27%) and the tests of Loeber’s (1993) model with only a male sample, this becomes difficult to do. Without a more representative sample of females, it is difficult to generalize the claims that the aforementioned theoretical perspectives have proposed for the last few decades to women and girls.

Masculinity in Crime

Scholars have also argued for the acknowledgment of male-specific pathways shaped by masculinity and masculine experiences (Messerschmidt, 1993; Miller, 2014). Indeed, foundational research in the field of criminology by Sutherland (1939) and Cohen (1955) established a relationship between masculinity and crime (Messerschmidt, 2005). Nonetheless, there is an argument for the consideration of gender in pathways to crime. As such, male-specific pathways should also be considered.

Messerschmidt’s (1993, 1997) research has been at the forefront of understanding masculinities and crime. He argued that patriarchy could not fully capture the relationship between gender and crime. Through his ethnographic work, Messerschmidt (1993) found that boys are socialized in a manner in which masculine qualities lead to criminal behavior. In other words, crime is essentially a function of “doing gender” and a result of expressing masculinity. For instance, Messerschmidt (1993) discovered that black and Latino boys in particular were more often involved in gangs and that violence was a method toward exerting masculine dominance. On the other hand, he found that lower-class working boys tended to steal to support their income and also drank and lashed out at others to cope with their impoverished situation. Other research has since confirmed relationships between men’s work stress or lack of income, substance abuse, and violence against their intimate partners (Copes & Hochstetler, 2003; Peralta, Tuttle, & Steele, 2010). Hence, men’s experiences shaped by masculine expectations (i.e., physically dominating, financial provider) directly influence their distinct pathways to crime.

In general, men are more likely to have criminal histories and to be considered violent in comparison to women (Fitzgerald, Mazerolle, Piquero, & Ansara, 2012; Jordan, Clark, Pritchard, & Charnigo, 2012). In particular, boys tend to externalize behaviors and engage in criminal activities with delinquent peers while girls tend to internalize and engage in self-harm (Belknap & Holsinger, 2006; Vaske, Boisvert, & Wright, 2015). Biosocial scholars argue that such differences are the result of biological and social differences (for a review, see Vaske et al., 2015). For instance, boys may have higher levels of aggression due to testosterone, and they are socialized to be more physically aggressive than are girls (Vaske et al., 2015). Such differences impact men’s likelihood to engage in criminal behavior through adulthood.

Thus, masculinities also account for important gendered experiences. While Messerschmidt’s (1993) research has begun the inquiry into masculinities and crime, further research is needed to fully understand how gender shapes men’s criminality (Miller, 2014). Similar to male-specific research on pathways to crime, scholars have also found distinct pathways to crime among women that cannot be accounted for through general criminological theories.

Women’s Pathways to Crime

Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, research examining women’s specific pathways to crime began to emerge in response to a neglect for women’s specific experiences in general theories of crime. Gendered pathways research examines “the broad life disadvantages and social circumstances that put women at risk of ongoing criminal involvement” (Bloom, Owen, Covington, & Raeder, 2003b, p. 542). Although the gendered pathways perspective began with qualitative, life-history interview methods (e.g., Batchelor, 2005; Bloom, Owen, Rosenbaum, & Deschenes, 2003c; Gilfus, 1992; Richie, 1996), quantitative methods have more recently been employed to increased generalizability and statistical inference (Brennan, Breitenbach, Dieterich, Salisbury, & Van Voorhis, 2012; Gehring, 2016; Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009). Based upon the abundance of research on women’s pathways to crime, the most common factors typically consist of childhood abuse, substance abuse, unhealthy intimate relationships, and a lack of self-efficacy (e.g., Arnold, 1990; Belknap & Holsinger, 2006; Bowles, DeHart, & Webb, 2012; Browne, Miller, & Maguin, 1999; Chesney-Lind, 1989, 2000; Chesney-Lind & Rodriquez, 1983; Covington, 1998; Daly, 1992; DeHart, Lynch, Belknap, Dass-Brailsford, & Green, 2014; McClellan, Farabee, & Crouch, 1997; McDaniels-Wilson & Belknap, 2008; Owen, 1998; Verona, Murphy, & Javdani, 2015). Other factors such as mental illness (e.g., depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]), relational issues with family members, or parental stress often interact with other direct pathways. Such complexities are discussed further below.

Childhood Abuse

A higher incidence of childhood abuse and neglect is reported among incarcerated women in comparison to incarcerated men (Belknap & Holsinger, 2006; Jones, Brown, Wanamaker, & Greiner, 2014; Jordan et al., 2012; Leigey & Reed, 2010; Payne, Gainey, & Carey, 2005) and the general female population (Arnold, 1990; Browne et al., 1999; Chesney-Lind & Rodriguez, 1983; Gaarder & Belknap, 2002; Gilfus, 1992, 2002; Siegel & Williams, 2003; Widom, 1989). Abuse has also been found as a stronger predictor of subsequent offending for women in comparison to male clients (Makarios, 2007; Payne et al., 2005; Topitzer, Mersky, & Reynolds, 2011; Widom & Maxfield, 2001). The qualitative life history research by Joanne Belknap and Meda Chesney-Lind first highlighted girls’ pathways into crime through patriarchal structures in the home and justice system (Belknap, 2001; Chesney-Lind, 1989, 2006; Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2013; Chesney-Lind & Rodriguez, 1983; Chesney-Lind & Shelden, 2004). Their findings have since been confirmed by other research as well (e.g., DeHart, 2008; Gilfus, 1992; Kakar, Friedemann, & Peck, 2002). In particular, girls have a greater likelihood for childhood victimization than boys due to their increased sexualization (Chesney-Lind & Irwin, 2008; Wesley, 2002) and are treated differently by guardians and criminal justice agencies in response to status offenses (i.e., running away; Chesney-Lind, 1989). These life experiences, shaped by being a girl/woman, lead to a common pathway to crime starting with childhood abuse.

Specifically, young girls with histories of victimization and abuse often run away to escape abusive households (Chesney-Lind, 1989). Consequently, girls who run away often cycle through the justice system, surviving on the streets in between juvenile detention stays (Daly, 1992). Such experiences with abuse in the home often lead to running away from home, risky sexual behavior, early pregnancy and motherhood, drug use, and, ultimately, criminal behavior (Chesney-Lind, 1989). Typical strategies for survival include prostitution (even though technically a girl under the age of 18 cannot consent to sex/prostitution) and drug sales, which can further facilitate drug use, as well as relationships with antisocial men who provide for licit or illicit financial needs (Belknap, 2001; Belknap, Holsinger, & Dunn, 1997; Bloom et al., 2003c; Daly, 1992; Owen & Bloom, 1995). These relationships often become violent and can create increased criminal opportunities for women. This behavior persists into adulthood and fosters continued involvement in criminal behavior such as prostitution, drug sales, and drug use (Chesney-Lind, 1989, 2000; McClellan et al., 1997).

Mental illness and substance abuse can also occur as a response to abuse (Gehring, 2016; Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009). Some women may respond to abuse without long-lasting negative effects, as they possess effective coping skills developed through nurturing or loving relationships with family, friends, or partners. However, others may experience persistent maladaptive coping, PTSD, low self-esteem, insomnia, shame, panic disorder, depression, anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, and substance abuse (Bloom et al., 2003a; Gelinas, 1982; Kendler et al., 2000; Molnar, Buka, & Kessler, 2001; Newmann & Sallmann, 2004; Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009; Sorbello, Eccleston, Ward, & Jones, 2002). Women who suffer from trauma can also experience relational dysfunctions that significantly hinder psychological development (Covington, 1998; El-Bassel et al., 1996; Herman, 1992).

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is also a strong predictor of future criminal behavior (Nelson‐Zlupko, Kauffman, & Morrison Dore, 1995; Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009). Women often use and abuse substances (drugs and alcohol) as a means to self‐medicate, or cope with, negative life experiences such as abuse or trauma (Bloom, Owen, & Covington, 2003a; Covington, 1998; Nelson‐Zlupko et al., 1995; Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009; Verona et al., 2015). Indeed, many justice-involved women suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and self-injurious behavior (Belknap & Holsinger, 2006; Bloom et al., 2003c; DeHart et al., 2014; McClellan et al., 1997; Peters, Strozier, Murrin, & Kearns, 1997), and such disorders are often coupled with substance abuse, referred to as co-occurring disorders (Bloom et al., 2003c; Blume, 1990; DeHart et al., 2014; Holtfreter & Morash, 2003; Houser & Welsh, 2014; Lynch et al., 2014; Mullings, Pollock, & Crouch, 2002; Newmann & Sallmann, 2004; Nowotny, Belknap, Lynch, & Dehart, 2014; Owen & Bloom, 1995).

As discussed by Bloom and colleagues (2003a), women have distinct pathways into substance abuse. Specifically, substance use may serve as a more readily available, or less expensive, treatment for depressive, stress‐related, or mental health symptoms than conventional psychological treatment. Further, many women often engage in other crimes due to the need for money to purchase drugs (Bloom et al., 2003a). This process becomes a damaging cycle: women are victimized, seek out illicit substances in order to self‐medicate and manage their resulting emotional or mental health problems, participate in criminal acts in order to obtain more drugs or property they can sell or trade for drugs, and end up in the criminal justice system. Women may also become involved in a pattern of using and trafficking drugs through intimate partners or family members (Daly, 1992).

Intimate Partners

Women’s pathways to crime are often linked to antisocial intimate partners. This is likely due to the increased value women place on their relationships in comparison to men (Jordan, 1991; Miller, 1976) and the importance of relational theory to women’s pathways to crime (Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009). Specifically, women are typically introduced to illicit substances, criminal acts, and criminal networks through male intimate partners (Dunlap, Johnson, & Maher, 1997; Evans, Forsyth, & Gauthier, 2002; Maher, 1997; Maher & Hudson, 2007; Sterk, 1999). The bulk of research on drug markets finds that women primarily obtain access and become involved due to their connections with men (Daly, 1992; Maher & Hudson, 2007; Sered & Norton-Hawk, 2014). For instance, Sterk (1999) found that women not only gain access to the market through male partners but still rely on the men for enforcement and protection even when they achieve higher status roles (such as selling or dealing narcotics).

Further, unhealthy intimate relationships can lead to mental illness and substance abuse. When women experience unhealthy relationships, often characterized by domestic abuse, they may respond with feelings of hopelessness that they will not be able to repair the relationship (Miller, 1988; Richie, 1996). Intense feelings of depression often result in drug-abusing behaviors as a form of self-medication or escape (Miller, 1988). Women may also feel “condemned isolation” as they are often isolated from friends and family while in unhealthy relationships (Miller & Stiver, 1998). Indeed, studies have shown that women who feel disconnected from others or who had difficulty forming healthy relationships experienced major depressive characteristics including low self-esteem (Kaplan & Surrey, 1984). Likewise, women may rely on substances to maintain relationships or to cope with psychological distress experienced in unhealthy relationships (Covington & Surrey, 1997).

Lack of Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy refers to the personal confidence or ability to achieve specific goals (Pollack, 2000). Social networks provide social structural resources (“social capital”) that enable the attainment of skills and knowledge (“human capital”) to achieve goals that would otherwise be unattainable (Coleman, 1988; Portes, 1998; Reisig, Holtfreter, & Morash, 2002). Concepts of social and human capital are also related to psychological empowerment or self-efficacy (Pollack, 2000). However, social and human capital are not evenly distributed across social networks and are commonly deficient among female offenders (e.g., Holtfreter, Reisig, & Morash, 2004; Reisig, Holtfreter, & Morash, 2002).

Women exist in larger social structures that place them at social and economic disadvantages in comparison to men. Women who enter the criminal justice system experience high incidences of socioeconomic disadvantages including unemployment, low paying or part-time employment, being widowed, separated, or divorced, and a lack of educational or vocational skills (Heilbrun et al., 2008; Miller, 1988; Steffensmeier, 1993; Wolfe, Cullen, & Cullen, 1984). Although the research is mixed on whether financial, vocational, and economic deficiencies affect female offenders more than their male counterparts (Heilbrun et al., 2008; van der Knaap, Alberda, Oosterveld, & Born, 2012), women experience more struggles to maintain stable employment due to increased economic marginality in comparison to men (for a review, see Heimer, 2000). Specifically, women typically have lower-paying jobs, and even in equal positions they tend to earn less income (Heimer, 2000). Most importantly, single mothers experience the brunt of gender inequality in earnings as they are typically the sole providers for their children (Messerschmidt, 1986). Thus, due to their position in society, socioeconomic disadvantages are particularly important to consider among women offenders. Consequently, many women commit non-violent property offenses to supplement low income (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2013; Daly, 1992).

Women have common pathways to crime through childhood abuse, substance abuse, male intimate partners, and lack of self-efficacy. Such factors are often interrelated and interact with other life circumstances such as mental illness or relationships with family. While prior pathways research has established common factors, less is known regarding the importance of when certain life events have occurred. Consequently, scholars have begun to bridge life-course criminology with the gendered pathways perspective.

Life-Course Perspectives: Identifying Age of Onset in Women’s Pathways

As discussed, life-course/developmental criminology suggests the age of the onset of criminal behavior is crucial toward understanding trajectories of continued criminal behavior. Those who begin criminal involvement at a young age have different life trajectories than those who start later in life. Recently, scholars have begun to incorporate a life-course perspective into gendered pathways to better account for the age of onset (Brennan et al., 2012; DeHart et al., 2014; Simpson et al., 2016; Simpson, Yahner, & Dugan, 2008).

Although much of the life-course/developmental research uses longitudinal data to track criminal involvement over time, gendered pathways scholars have used a life history event or calendar approach. Specifically, the researchers conducted lengthy life history interviews while also tracking when life events actually occurred. While the researchers acknowledge that relying on the participants’ memory to track life events is not as reliable as actual longitudinal follow-ups, it is an effective method toward understanding how such life events have impacted women through their own accounts (DeHart et al., 2014; Simpson et al., 2008, 2016).

Similar to general life-course research, research on women specific pathways indicates that early and adolescent onset leads to increased criminal involvement. Early initiation was more commonly associated with sexual abuse (Simpson et al., 2008, 2016) as well as sexual precocity and low supervision and lack of childhood bonds in comparison to women with adult-onset offending (Simpson et al., 2008, 2016). Child-onset offenders were also more heavily involved in drug dealing, property crime, and offensive violence in adulthood (Simpson et al., 2016). Notably, Simpson and colleagues (2008, 2016) found that most women fall under the adult-onset offending category, and these women had fewer other risk factors in comparison to women who began offending at a younger age. Further, various life events were interrelated, such as mental illness, running away as a teen, and drug offending (DeHart et al., 2014).

To conclude, understanding the age of onset in relation to gender-specific life experiences helps to identify crime trajectories. Women with early and adolescent onsets appear to have more serious criminal histories, a greater prevalence of childhood abuse, and increased drug use. Identifying such trajectories can aid in early prevention and treatment efforts.

Typologies

Prior research has confirmed women’s pathways to crime often stem from childhood and ongoing victimization, trauma, substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships, lack of human or social capital, economic disadvantage, and mental health issues including depression and anxiety. Such factors are often interrelated and complex. Fortunately, scholars have begun to organize and characterize women’s life experiences into typologies. These typologies can help to better organize and conceptualize how factors lead to criminal involvement.

Kathleen Daly’s (1992) research is credited as one of the first to begin organizing the findings of the pathways theory into categories (see Table 1). Using federal pre-sentence investigation reports to create qualitative biographies with a racially diverse sample of women, Daly (1992) discovered five pathways women typically take when initially engaging in crime that are distinct from their male counterparts: (1) street women who fled abusive households and survived on the street by engaging in drugs, prostitution, or theft to survive; (2) battered women who were involved in extreme victimization from violent partners, leading to criminal behavior related to their relationship; (3) harmed and harming women who experienced extreme sexual and physical child abuse and neglect, which led to school delinquency and ultimately chronic adult offending; (4) drug-connected women who were involved in a pattern of using and trafficking drugs usually while collaborating with intimate partners or family members; and (5) other, later termed economically motivated women (Morash & Schram, 2002), which involved women who committed crime for economic gains such as fraud, theft, and embezzlement. The most common pathway to female crime was the harmed and harming pathway, followed by street women and the drug-connected pathway (Daly, 1992).

Table 1. Two Pathway Typologies

Author

Typologies

Kathleen Daly (1992)

  1. (a) Street women who fled abusive households and survived on the street by engaging in drugs, prostitution, or theft to survive

  2. (b) Battered women who were involved in extreme victimization from violent partners, leading to criminal behavior related to their relationship

  3. (c) Harmed and harming women who experienced extreme sexual and physical child abuse and neglect, which led to school delinquency and ultimately chronic adult offending

  4. (d) Drug-connected women who were involved in a pattern of using and trafficking drugs, usually while collaborating with intimate partners or family members

  5. (e) Economically motivated women who committed crime for economic gains such as fraud, theft, and embezzlement

Beth Richie (1996)

Battered African American Women

  1. (a) Women who were held hostage, experienced extreme intimate partner violence, and were kept isolated

  2. (b) Women who projected and associated violence elsewhere and lashed out against men other than their batterers in symbolic retaliation for their abuse

  3. (c) Impoverished women who were arrested for property or other economically motivated crimes as a result of needing income

Both Battered African American and White Women

  1. (a) Women who were used for sexual exploitation by their intimate partners and reported prostitution and had higher rates of child and adult sexual abuse

  2. (b) Women who fought back against their abusers, viewing the act as self-defense

Battered African American and White Women as Well as Non-battered African American Women

  1. (a) Women who were heavily involved with addiction and whose primary offenses were drug-related

Beth Richie (1996) also developed typologies that were specific to women who were victims of intimate partner violence, also referred to as “battered women” (see Table 1). Her theory of gender entrapment described how race, class, and gender coalesce to create social structural disadvantages, particularly for African American women, which lead them to criminal activity. She conducted in-depth interviews with 37 women (26 battered black, 5 non-battered black, 6 battered white) at Rikers Island Correctional Facility to develop typologies.

Richie (1996) observed six unique pathways to crime. Three pathways were specifically observed with only African American battered women. First, women who were “held hostage” included women whose intimate partner used extreme violence against them and kept them hostage and isolated. The second group consisted of women who “projected and associated” violence elsewhere or, more specifically, against men other than their batterers in symbolic retaliation for their abuse. The third group was “impoverished” women, comprised of those arrested for property or other economically motivated crimes as a result of their impoverished state.

Two other pathways captured both African American and white battered women. First, there was a group of women used for sexual exploitation by their intimate partners. These women also reported prostitution and had higher rates of child and adult sexual abuse. Second, white and African American battered women fell into a pathway involving fighting back against their abusers, viewing the act as self-defense.

Lastly, the final pathway observed by Richie (1996) included all three groups of women. This group was comprised of women who were heavily involved with addiction and whose primary offenses were drug offenses. African American battered women typically engaged in drug use after an abusive incident, often as a way to “reconnect” with their abuser. Some of these women also indicated that they were initially forced to engage in drug use by their batterers. On the other hand, the non-battered African American women admitted to a more voluntary onset of addiction, while one white battered woman spoke of her arrest for selling drugs as a way to afford leaving her abuser. Thus, Richie ultimately argued that intimate partner abuse may compel women to crime.

In a more recent study, Brennan and colleagues (2012) used a person-centered analytical approach with a large sample of women prisoners from California to create typologies for serious and habitual crime based upon Daly’s (1992) pathways as well as Moffitt’s (1993) adolescent-limited (AL) and life-course-persistent (LCP) developmental typologies (see Figure 1). Each typology consisted of varying risk and need profiles based on women’s prior criminal history, demographic characteristics, prior trauma and abuse, parenting responsibilities, and presence of substance abuse and mental health needs.

Pathways to CrimeClick to view larger

Figure 1. Classification of women’s pathways to serious and habitual criminal behavior (From Brennan et al., 2012).

The authors identified four broad typologies: “normal-functioning” drug-dependent women, victimized/battered women, as well as socialized subcultural and aggressive antisocial women, nested under the “extreme marginalization, higher crime/drugs” categorization. the “normal-functioning” drug-dependent typology, similar to Moffit’s (1993) AL trajectory, was characterized by a relative absence of risk factors, later onset, and relatively minor histories of property or drug offenses with little early abuse, few early school problems, and few psychological abnormalities. The victimized/battered typology resembled Daly’s (1992) battered and drug-connected categorizations with high substance abuse and adult physical/sexual abuse. The social-subcultural path represented women with low self-efficacy who likely engaged in crime through a learned antisocial subculture (i.e., drug trafficking, substance abuse). Lastly, women who fell under the aggressive antisocial category resembled both Moffitt’s LCP and Daly’s harmed and harming paths as they tended to have antisocial attitudes, hostility, low self-efficacy, and history of violent offending. Of the four broad typologies, Brennan and colleagues (2012) found that women most commonly fell under the “normal-functioning” drug-dependent typology followed by socialized-subcultural and victimized/battered, while the aggressive, antisocial category accounted for the least number of women. Each of the four typologies was split into two more specific pathways, with eight paths total (see Figure 1).

Path Models

In the first quantitative evaluation of the pathways perspective in predicting recidivism, Salisbury and Van Voorhis (2009) used a sample of 313 women probationers from the state of Missouri to create female-specific pathways using a path analytic approach (multiple regression analyses with a common ending dependent variable). The authors found three common narratives stemming from feminist theories addressing female criminality (see Figure 2):

  1. 1. Child abuse pathway that included mental illness and substance abuse

  2. 2. Relational pathway that consisted of dysfunctional relationships, domestic violence, adult victimization, low self-esteem, current mental illness, and substance abuse

  3. 3. Social and human capital pathway that included low educational attainment and unemployment along with deficits in social/familial support

Pathways to CrimeClick to view larger

Figure 2. Salisbury and Van Voorhis (2009) path models.

The first model described by Salisbury and Van Voorhis (2009) was a childhood victimization model. It was comprised of measures of victimization as a child, mental illness history, substance abuse history, current depression/anxiety, and dynamic substance abuse. The pathway was largely informed by Daly’s (1992, 1994) “harmed and harming” women typology. The childhood victimization model assumed that among the effects of child abuse, the onset of mental illness occurs prior to substance abuse. Although addictive behaviors might precede mental illness after experiencing childhood victimization, women offenders more frequently describe self-medicating behaviors to manage depression and symptoms related to posttraumatic stress disorder—or the onset of addiction after mental illness has been established (Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2013; Covington, 1998). Further, Salisbury and Van Voorhis (2009) incorporated both historical and dynamic forms of mental illness and addiction because they are discussed as conceptually distinct phenomena in the gender-responsive literature. Women offenders’ struggles with mental illness and substance abuse are understood to be ongoing, lifetime struggles (Covington & Surrey, 1997; Peters et al., 1997).

Indeed, their path analysis confirmed an indirect pathway from childhood victimization to offending. The findings indicated that childhood victimization, relational dysfunctions with intimate partners, and low self-efficacy were directly related to substance abuse and depression/anxiety. In turn, substance abuse and current depression/anxiety were directly related to prison admissions, suggesting that childhood victimization, relational dysfunctions, and self-efficacy were indirectly related to subsequent criminal offending. A similar path model—modeling prior child abuse, mental illness, and substance abuse—was also demonstrated to be significantly related to 6-month subsequent re-arrests and failures to appear among a sample of women defendants in Ohio. The same path model was not found among men defendants and their pre-trial outcomes (Gehring, 2016).

The second model, a relational pathway, captured how intimate relationship dysfunction leads to reduced levels of self-efficacy and greater likelihood of adult victimization, followed by struggles with depression/anxiety and dynamic substance abuse (Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009). Salisbury and Van Voorhis’s (2009) relational pathway was informed by the work of Jean Baker Miller (1986, 1988) and relational theory. According to relational theory, a woman’s identity, self-worth, and sense of empowerment are said to be defined by the quality of relationships she has with others (Gilligan, 1982; Kaplan & Surrey, 1984; Miller, 1976; Miller & Stiver, 1998). Women’s dysfunctional relationships with significant others may lead to feelings of hopelessness and intense feelings of shame, self-blame, and guilt, which in turn could subsequently result in drug-abusing behaviors (Miller, 1988).

Thus, Salisbury and Van Voorhis’s (2009) path analysis also confirmed a relational pathway to crime. The findings indicated that women’s dysfunctional and unhealthy intimate relationships facilitated adult victimization, reductions in self-efficacy, and symptoms of mental illness and substance abuse. Consequently, depression/anxiety symptoms along with current substance abuse were related to prison admissions.

Lastly, Salisbury and Van Voorhis (2009) also developed a social and human capital model based on more recent research investigating social capital specifically with women offenders (Giordano, Cernkovich, & Rudolph, 2002; Holtfreter et al., 2004; Reisig et al., 2002). Factors under this pathway include educational strengths, relationship dysfunction, familial support, self-efficacy, and employment and financial difficulties. The social and human capital model investigates how women’s social relationships (with intimate others and family) produce human capital (educational achievement, self-efficacy, and fewer employment/financial needs) to create opportunities to desist from criminal activity (Salisbury & Van Voorhis, 2009). Although social and human capital is important among male and female offenders, Salisbury and Van Voorhis’s (2009) conception of the model used gender-specific constructs related to women’s intimate relationships and self-efficacy.

Confirming a human and social capital pathway, Salisbury and Van Voorhis (2009) found that educational strengths and lower dysfunction in intimate relationships lead to increased self-efficacy. These factors, in turn, influenced women’s financial and employment issues, specifically, low self-efficacy, relationship dysfunction, and reduced family support. Ultimately, direct pathway to prison admissions included educational deficits and employment and financial difficulties.

Gendered Pathways to Crime: Going Beyond Traditional Criminological Research

Prior research has confirmed the importance of understanding pathways to crime, through which experiences during childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood contribute to offending later in life. Traditional criminological research in this area focused on general theoretical pathways that aimed to explain criminal behavior across broad populations. However, scholars have more recently argued that such research was primarily conducted with male samples and, subsequently, cannot be generalized to women (e.g., Chesney-Lind & Pasko, 2013; Van Voorhis, 2012). Likewise, the majority of general criminological research has not accounted for men’s pathways to crime shaped specifically by masculinity (Messerschmidt, 2005). Consequently, gendered experiences play a major role in criminality and have significant implications for gender-responsive policy and practice in supervising and treating justice-involved women (Wattanaporn & Holtfreter, 2014). As such, it is argued that gender-specific perspectives more accurately capture differentiating pathways to crime across men and women.

Notably, important overlaps exist between male and female pathways. For instance, younger criminal onset often leads to more serious offending and substance abuse plays a major role in the etiology of other criminal behaviors among both men and women. Nonetheless, when we use a gendered lens to consider pathways to offending, we see important distinctions. In particular, childhood abuse, while experienced among men and women, has a larger impact on women’s offending later in life in comparison to men (Jones et al., 2014; Jordan et al., 2012). Further, while men and women both commonly abuse substances to cope with life stresses, the onset and continued patterns of substance abuse can look quite different between men and women and boys and girls. For example, women typically begin substance abuse through familial or intimate partners (Daly, 1992; Maher & Hudson, 2007; Sered & Norton-Hawk, 2014) and have higher instances of co-occurring disorders (Annis & Graham, 1995; Miller, 1988). On the other hand, men tend to engage in substance abuse to enhance social situations and/or to conform to antisocial peer groups (Annis & Graham, 1995). Such subtle differences support the need for a gendered lens to accurately capture men and women’s distinct pathways to crime.

While an extant amount of research has been devoted toward understanding gendered differences in offending, variation within gender may also account for important distinctions (Burgess-Proctor, 2006; Chesney-Lind & Morash, 2013; Kruttschnitt, 2016). Accordingly, scholars have begun to argue for an intersectional approach when examining pathways to crime (Owen, Wells, & Pollock, 2017; Potter, 2015). Intersectionality—the study of how social hierarchies impact individuals with multiplicative identities— would help to account for differences in pathways to crime across gender in conjunction with other identifying distinctions such as race, class, immigrant status, or LGBTQ+. Indeed, as pathways have varied greatly between men and women, intersectional differences may also account for specific life experiences that lead to pathways to crime. Similarly, as the gendered pathways perspective has started being applied internationally (e.g., Fitzgerald et al., 2012; Joosen et al., 2016; Nuytiens & Christiaens, 2016; Salisbury, Kalantry, Boppre, Brundige, & Martínez, 2017; Shechory, Perry, & Addad, 2011), further research is needed to determine how life experiences shaped by other cultures and nations impact women’s and men’s criminality.

Further Reading

Brennan, T., Breitenbach, M., Dieterich, W., Salisbury, E. J., & Van Voorhis, P. (2012). Women’s pathways to serious and habitual crime: A person-centered analysis incorporating gender responsive factors. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 39, 1481–1508.Find this resource:

    Chesney-Lind, M., & Pasko, L. (2013). The female offender: Girls, women, and crime. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

      Daly, K. (1992). Women’s pathways to felony court: Feminist theories of lawbreaking and problems of representation. Southern California Review of Law and Women’s Studies, 2, 11–52.Find this resource:

        Kruttschnitt, C. (2016). The politics, and place, of gender in research on crime: 2015 presidential address to the American Society of Criminology. Criminology, 54, 8–29.Find this resource:

          Laub, J. H., & Sampson, R. J. (2003). Shared beginnings, divergent lives: Delinquent boys to age 70. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

            Loeber, R., Farrington, D. P., Stouthamer-Loeber, M., Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., White, H. R., et al. (2003). The development of male offending: Key findings from fourteen years of the Pittsburgh Youth Study. In T. P. Thornberry & M. D. Krohn (Eds.), Taking stock of delinquency: An overview of findings from contemporary longitudinal studies (pp. 93–136). New York: Kluwer/Plenum.Find this resource:

              Messerschmidt, J. W. (1993). Masculinities and crime: Critique and reconceptualization of theory. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Find this resource:

                Moffitt, T. E. (1993). Adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior: A developmental taxonomy. Psychological Review, 100, 674–701.Find this resource:

                  Richie, B. E. (1996). Compelled to crime: The gender entrapment of black battered women. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

                    Salisbury, E. J., & Van Voorhis, P. (2009). Gendered pathways: A quantitative investigation of women probationers’ paths to incarceration. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 36, 541–566.Find this resource:

                      Sampson, R. J., & Laub, J. H. (1993). Crime in the making: Pathways and turning points through life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

                        Vaske, J. C., Boisvert, D. L., & Wright, J. P. (2015). A biosocial perspective of female offending. In F. T. Cullen, P. Wilcox, J. L. Lux, & C. L. Jonson (Eds.), Sisters in crime revisited: Bringing gender into criminology (pp. 43–66). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                          Widom, C. S. (1989). Child abuse, neglect, and violent criminal behavior. Criminology, 27, 251–271.Find this resource:

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