Imprisonment rates for women have increased significantly over the past few
years. This increase, relative to the trend for male prisoners, has
implications relating to the overall rise in prison populations and the
subsequent planning issues for prisons.
This paper aims to identify the factors that are contributing to this
greater increase in the rate for women prisoners (the reference period of
1995 to 2002 indicates a 60% increase in rate per 100,000 population) as
compared to male prisoners. The behavior and characteristics of female
prisoners, including the types of offences committed, prior imprisonment,
age and Indigenous status provide possible explanations. In addition,
changes in sentencing practice, such as whether women are being
treated more harshly than previously by the judiciary and whether more
unsentenced women are being held in prisons, could also shed some light on
the apparent trend. The United Kingdom has experienced similar increases
in women in prison over the past decade, with recent research suggesting
that sentencing practice has been the main influencing factor despite the
fact that women tend to commit the less serious types of offences and also
tend to reoffend less often than men. Preliminary analysis of Australian
prison population figures for women suggests that the age and Indigenous
status profiles of female prisoners have shifted only slightly over the
course of the reference period. However the nature of the crimes committed
has changed. The number of women imprisoned for non-violent crimes has
decreased, while the number imprisoned for violent crimes has increased
(with robbery being the most notable increase). Considering this, further
analysis of offence types, prior convictions and aggregate sentence lengths
over time will be conducted in order to identify factors possibly
contributing to the large increase of women in prison.
One of the most fundamental characteristics of incarcerated populations is
that they are constituted almost entirely by male prisoners. In June of
2002 there were 21,008 males in Australian prisons and 1,484 females (ABS,
Prisoner Census, 2002). That is, males accounted for more than 93% of the
Australian prison population.
The reason for this overwhelming disparity in prison populations is quite
clear. For the most part, crime is committed by young males. Involvement of
males in crime of all types is much greater than involvement of females,
with greater differences being evident for the more serious crimes. This
disparity has been observed in both official (police) and unofficial (self-
report) measures of crime.
There are a number of reasons that have been proposed in the literature for
this differential involvement in criminal behaviour. These reasons tend to
focus on two main proposals: that women are inherently less inclined to
crime in general and to serious crime in particular; and that women are
treated differently by the courts.
Whatever the reason for the clear difference in involvement in criminal
behaviour, the resulting disparity in prison populations can be found
around the world. However in the last decade, and particularly in the last
five years, there has been a disproportionately rapid growth in the number
women in prison. At the prisoner census on 30 June 1995, there were 835
women and 16,593 men in the national prisoner population of 17,428. During
the seven years to 30 June 2002, the absolute number of male prisoners
increased by 27% while the absolute number of females increased by 78%. The
proportion of women in the prison population has risen from 4.8% in 1995 to
6.6% in 2002. The most telling figure is the rate of incarceration per
100,000 population: for males the rate has increased from 245.9 in 1995 to
282.4 in 2002, a rise of almost 15%. But for females, the rate of
imprisonment has jumped from 12.0 per 100,000 population in 1995 to 19.2
per 100,000 in 2002. This 60% increase in the rate of female imprisonment
is four times the increase for males.
This significant increase in the numbers of female prisoners and the rates
of female imprisonment are not unique to Australia. A recent study
conducted by the British Home Office (2002) shows that the proportion of
women in British prisons rose from 3.9% in 1995 to 5.6% in 2001. The number
of women in prison increased from 1993 to 2001 by 140% while the number of
men increased only
46% during that period. These figures are similar to those in Australia and
are also indicative of a substantial increase for females. In attempting to
understand the drivers of this change, the study examined the demographics
of female prisoners and their involvement in the criminal justice system.
Females were found to be more likely to be discharged or to receive a
community sentence, and were less likely to be sentenced to custody. When
they were sentenced, females were given shorter sentences. The study
suggested that this partially reflects the nature of crimes in which
females are involved, but even within offence groups, females are treated
more leniently than are
men. Of course, offence type is only a crude proxy of offence seriousness,
as the specific nature of the offence can vary greatly even within offence
groups. The study concluded that the increase in the female prison
population reflects sentencing changes, with increases in prison receptions
being driven by a more serious response to the less serious offences.
Imprisonment Rates for Males and Females, 1995-2002
The graph below shows the rapid and disproportionate increase in the rate
of imprisonment for females when compared with males. Using 1995 as a base,
the rate of imprisonment for females has increased by 60% over the seven
year period, while the rate for males has increased only 14.8%.
(INSERT TABLE IF ANY)
The information above can also be presented in terms of proportions of the
prison population. The following graph shows the proportion of female
prisoners in each State/Territory over the period 1995-2002. It is clear
that there has been a substantial increase in female prisoners across
overall the proportion of female prisoners has increased from 4.8% in 1995
to 6.6% in 2002.
(INSERT TABLE IF ANY)
This disparity has implications not only for understanding the reasons
behind the overall rise in prison populations, but also for issues relating
to the specific needs for female prisoners. On a broader level, this
increase also has implications for prevention and intervention programs.
Such programs tend to be directed at male offenders, who comprise the bulk
of the offending population. An increase in the proportion of female
prisoners indicates that prevention and intervention programs may need to
reassess their target population and thus their strategies.
The following section proposes a number of possible factors that might be
influencing the rise in female imprisonment.
Factors Influencing the Increase in Female Crime
There are several possible reasons for this is proportionate increase in
the number of female prisoners. Changes in women’s criminal behaviour,
changes in the characteristics of female offenders or changes in official
responses to female criminality may all be affecting the number of
women who are serving prison terms.
Changes in women’s criminal behaviour:
Women tend to be involved in the forms of crime that are typically regarded
as less serious, such as shoplifting and drug use; they tend not to commit
the more serious types of crime such as homicide and assault. However
increases in the proportion of women in prison might be partially explained
by changes in the types of crime women are committing. Crimes that are seen
as more serious will attract more (and longer) sentences of imprisonment.
Hypothesis 1: The increase in the rate of female incarceration is due to an
increase in the seriousness of women’s crime.
For both males and females, offenders who have been in prison on a prior
occasion will be more likely to receive a term of imprisonment than those
who have not. It is possible that the increase in female prisoners is due
to an increase in the re-offending of women. This implies a change in the
frequency of offending, rather than in the type of offending.
Hypothesis 2: The increase in the rate of female incarceration is due to an
increase in the numbers
of women coming before the courts who have previously been imprisoned.
Changes in the characteristics of female offenders
It is a well-established fact in criminology that rates of offending are
greatest among the young. In particular, the 15-24 year age group is often
cited as having the highest crime rate. The preponderance of young people
in the criminal justice system is found among both males and females. A
change in the age profile of women prisoners might help explain the
increase in female imprisonment rates.
Hypothesis 3: The increase in the rate of female incarceration is due to a
downward change in the age profile of women prisoners.
Changes in official responses to female criminality
Aggregate sentence length
It is possible that the court system treats male and female defendants
differently, being more lenient towards women. Possible explanations of
this disparity revolve around the notions of “chivalry” and “paternalism”.
These explanations suggest that courts are less willing to sentence women
of imprisonment than they are men, and that when imprisonment is handed
down, the length of the sentence will be shorter for women, other things
being equal. Changes in sentencing policy may have reduced the impact of
such differential treatment, with a resulting increase in the length of
Hypothesis 5: The increase in the rate of female incarceration is due to an
increase in the length of imprisonment sentences handed down to women.
The use of remand and other unsentenced detention as a mechanism to hold
unsentenced prisoners might also be subject to the same influences that
result in differential sentencing practices for men and women. In the same
way as changes in sentencing policy may have affected overall imprisonment
rates for women, these changes may also have affected the use of remand for
Hypothesis 6: The increase in the rate of female incarceration is due to an
increase in the number of unsentenced female prisoners.
Changes in Women’s Criminal Behaviour
The following graphs show the proportion of female prisoners who are
serving sentences for certain violent crimes and those whose sentence
relates to selected non-violent crimes. These offence types were selected
as they represent what might be considered crimes typically committed by
males (the violent crimes) and those more typically associated with females
(the non-violent crimes).
There has been a clear increase in the proportion of female prisoners who
have been sentenced for a violent crime. This increase has been most
pronounced for robbery (from 6.9% in 1995 to 11.9% in 2002), although
homicide has increased as well. Assault figures have been more volatile,
and have increased marginally.
The trend for non-violent crimes is even more dramatic. The proportion of
females sentenced for deception offences has dropped from 16.4% in 1996
(the first year these data are available in this series) to 9.7% in 2002, a
decrease of 41%. Illicit drug offences decreased dramatically between 1995
and 2001 with a drop of almost 50%, then increased sharply in 2002. Despite
this rise, drug offences are still significantly lower in 2002
(representing 14.8% of most serious offences) than
they were in 1995 (at 18.4% of most serious offences). Break and enter
offences have dropped moderately over the reference period.
Overall, it is apparent that the nature of the offences for which women are
being sentenced to prison has changed substantially from 1995 to 2002. This
might be due to a real change in the nature of female crime, to more
general changes in the types of offences being brought before the court, or
changes in court sentencing practices.
An examination of the offences of male prisoners over this period clarifies
these trends. The graphs below show the proportion of male prisoners
sentenced for a selection of violent and non-violent crimes.
(INSERT TABLE HERE)
The trends for males are very different to those for females. The nature of
offences for which males are sentenced has remained fairly stable over the
period under examination, with violent offences increasing only slightly
and non-violent offences decreasing only slightly.
It is also helpful to examine these overall trends on a single graph. The
graph below presents single trend lines for the selected violent and non-
violent offences for females and males.
(INSERT TABLE HERE)
The most significant trend apparent from this graph is the decrease in the
proportion of non-violent most serious offences for females. This drop
possibly reflects a change in sentencing practices by the courts, whereby
less serious offenders are diverted from prison to other penalty types such
as fines, suspended sentences or community service orders.
Hypothesis 1 thus appears to have been supported. The change in the nature
of female offences seems to be unique, and not part of a general change
across the prisoner population. This has
implications for the number of female defendants being sentenced to prison:
more serious crimes are more likely to attract a prison sentence and to
attract a longer sentence as well.
An increase in the proportion of female prisoners with prior imprisonment
would help explain the increase in female prisoners. The following graph
shows the proportion of male and female prisoners who have previously been
It is apparent that there is no significant increase over this period for
either males or females in the proportion of prisoners with prior
imprisonments. For the most part, the trend for females tracks the trend
for males, with both proportions moving only slightly between 1995 and
Hypothesis 2 appears not to have been supported, as there has been no
significant change in the
proportion of female prisoners with prior imprisonment.
Changes in the characteristics of female offenders
A change in age profile might lead to a change in the proportion of female
prisoners. It would be
expected that a lowering of age of prisoners could indicate an increase in
participation in criminal behaviour, as it is the younger age groups that
tend to have the highest involvement in crime.
There is no significant change apparent over the reference period of the
age profile of female
prisoners, with both graphs showing a preponderance of women in the 25-29
Hypothesis 3 thus appears not to have been supported, as there has been no
significant change in the age profile of female prisoners over this period.
Changes in Official Responses to Female Criminality
Aggregate sentence length
If the courts are reducing the disparity in sentencing between males and
females and are sentencing female defendants to longer prison terms than in
previous years, then the proportion of female prisoners would increase
disproportionately. The following graph shows median aggregate sentence
length for both males and females for 1995 to 2002.
It is apparent that the median sentence length for females continues to be
much lower than for
males. The median sentence length for females increased from 18.2 to 24
months (an increase of
32%) from 1995 to 1997 but has remained remarkably stable ever since. For
males, sentence length increased from 38.1 to 42 months (an increase of
10%) from 1995 to 2000 but has also remained stable since. While aggregate
sentence length did increase disproportionately for females in the early
years of the reference period, sentence length cannot explain the
continuing increase in female prisoner numbers in the years since 1997.
The continuing significant disparity between male and female sentence
lengths is possibly a
function of the types of offences committed by men and women, although
there may be some
degree of differential treatment as well. The following graph examines
whether there is an effect of offence type on sentence length for males and
It is clear that females are being sentenced to shorter sentences than
males, even when offence type is held constant. The only exception to this
is dealing and trafficking of illicit drugs, where median aggregate
sentence length is the same for both males and females. This suggests that
there may indeed be some disparity in sentencing practices, with females
being treated more leniently by the courts. However it is also possible
that there are still variations in the seriousness of offences within these
broad offence categories. It is not possible to examine offences at such a
fine level of detail with these data.
Hypothesis 5 thus appears not to have been supported: the increase in
female imprisonment rates
cannot be explained by disproportionate changes in sentence length.
However, given international findings concerning the issue of changing
sentencing practices (in particular, findings from the United Kingdom),
further detailed analysis of the seriousness of offences would be valuable.
An increase in unsentenced female prisoners might explain the increase in
rates. The graph below shows the proportion of unsentenced prisoners for
females and for the total prison population.
It is apparent that the proportion of unsentenced prisoners has increased
for both females and for the prison population as a whole. For females, the
proportion of unsentenced prisoners has increased from 15.1% in 1995 to
24.5% in 2002 (a rise of 62%). For the total prison population, the
proportion of unsentenced prisoners has increased from 11.5% in 1995 to
19.6% in 2002 (a rise of 70%). Thus the increase in female unsentenced
prisoners is marginally smaller than that for all prisoners.
Hypothesis 6 therefore appears not to have been supported: while the
increase in the proportion of unsentenced female prisoners is contributing
to the general rise in female imprisonment rates, it does not seem to
explain the disproportionate nature of the rise.
It is apparent from the data analysed that the main factor in the
disproportionate increase in the
female prisoner population is that the type of offence that female
prisoners have committed has
changed over the reference period. As women’s crimes have become more
representation in prisons has increased as serious crimes are more likely
to attract a prison sentence than are non-violent crimes.
On the other hand, sentencing outcomes have changed little over the
reference period. Both men’s and women’s aggregate sentence lengths have
remained stable for the last few years. However, there is still a disparity
in the sentence length of men and women even within offence categories.
These findings are somewhat at odds with a primary conclusion from the
study conducted by the British Home Office. Increases in female
imprisonment in Britain have been attributed to changes in sentencing
practices, with more serious responses being applied to the less serious
crimes. In this analysis, the aggregate sentence length of female prisoners
has remained stable over the last few years. Instead, the analysis
uncovered a substantial change in the nature of women’s offending. This
suggests that there might be other factors contributing to the change in
the female prisoner population in the two countries — factors relating to
characteristics of female offenders or to sentencing practices of the
courts. Further analysis is required to determine what these factors might
The increase in the female prison population has implications not only for
concerns about service
provision, but also for the development of prevention and intervention
programs. If the nature of
female offending is changing, then prevention programs that target women
will need to change
accordingly. Community expectations and understanding of female criminality
will need to change, as will the responses of the criminal justice system.
Police, courts and the prison system will need to consider how such changes
affect their treatment of female offenders. The prison system in particular
will need to assess the impact of changes in the nature of female offending
patterns on their current provision of services.
Further analysis is warranted in this area, in particular to examine more
closely the possible effect of changing sentencing practices on female