Abstract: Implementing Gender-Responsive Principles into Policy: A Review of State Legislation for Incarcerated Women and Implications for Future Policy (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Implementing Gender-Responsive Principles into Policy: A Review of State Legislation for Incarcerated Women and Implications for Future Policy

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR B, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Gina Fedock, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Sophia Sarantakos, MSW, LCSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose: As the number of women involved in the criminal justice system has dramatically increased, correctional policies and practices that contain gender-responsive principles have been deemed necessary in order to improve women’s wellbeing. State-level policy efforts have specifically focused on addressing the needs of women involved in the criminal justice system as efforts to lower recidivism and promote decarceration. However, there is scant research examining if and how gender-responsive principles have been infused in state-level legislation. This study examined the following research questions: (1) How have states incorporated gender-responsive principles in state legislation?; (2) Which principles have been included within state legislation?; (3) What gender-responsive gaps in state legislation should be addressed in the next wave of policies?

Methods: The current study included a review and content analysis of state statutes in effect in each state for women involved in the criminal justice system. The search engine Lexis Nexus was used to conduct the review. Some of the search terms used included “female offender”; “female inmates”; “women offenders”; “pregnant inmate”; “gender specific”, and “gender responsive.” All state statutes identified through this search were reviewed in order to examine how existing statutes incorporate gender-responsive principles. In addition, statutes passed since 2000 were compared to previous legislation in order to look at how gender-responsive principles impacted legislation for women involved in the criminal justice system. Each state statute was coded in terms of the gender responsive principle(s) present, and the statutes were analyzed to identify themes across and within statutes.

Results: The search yielded 225 state statutes that included at least one search term. Less than five states incorporated all six gender-responsive principles within their statutes. A majority of states had at least one statute that incorporated the gender-responsive principle of enhancing environmental safety, and these statutes mainly pertained to conditional limiting of the shackling of pregnant, birthing, and postpartum incarcerated women. The least commonly applied gender-responsive principle focused on improving the socioeconomic status of women. Specific themes found across and within the statutes are the following: (1) the emphasis on gender parity instead of equity; (2) a prioritization of the correctional institution over women’s wellbeing; and (3) a lack of incorporation of the macro-dimensions of gender with feminized portrayals of justice-involved women. In addition, a minority of states have crafted innovative programs and policies for promoting the decarceration of women with the basis of gender-responsive principles.  

Conclusions and Implications: State statutes have not fully incorporated gender-responsive principles, which could be used as a guide to promote decarceration efforts, enhance services, and address power dynamics embedded into the over-incarceration of women. A minority of states have applied several gender-responsive principles, displaying an interweaving of criminal justice and social work efforts to improve women’s lives, and these statutes may serve as examples for other states. Further social work research is needed to examine the impact of these state statutes on women’s lives, as well as to create new visions of transformed justice.