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Crime and Punishment

Four professors research the revolving door of crime among young women and their incarceration—and why it's such a difficult cycle to break. 

Drew Humphries, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Rutgers–Camden; Nancy Wolff, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers–New Brunswick; and Jody Miller, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers–Newark. Insert Sandra Simkins
From the left, Drew Humphries, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Rutgers–Camden; Nancy Wolff, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers–New Brunswick; and Jody Miller, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers–Newark. Photography by Nick Romanenko
Inset: Sandra Simkins is affiliated with the School of Law–Camden. Photography by John Emerson

A third to half of the girls living in high-crime areas are victims of sexual violence. For many, whether victim or perpetrator, violence is a daily part of life. Provoked by peers and oblivious to consequences, girls gain their initiation through petty crimes that land them in court—the gateway to an adulthood of entanglement with the criminal justice system and incarceration. It’s an alternative, it could be argued, that’s only a matter of degrees worse than their lives outside the system. But why are women so vulnerable to this revolving door of despair? Drew Humphries, Jody Miller, Sandra Simkins, and Nancy Wolff have spent their careers studying and observing the criminality of women and girls.

Humphries, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Rutgers–Camden, examines the public perception of girls and women ensnared in the criminal justice system. Miller, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers–Newark, most recently has studied young women’s experiences of violence in poor urban communities. Simkins CLAW’91, the codirector of the Children’s Justice Clinic at the School of Law–Camden, devoted 15 years to defending juveniles accused of crimes and now concentrates on understanding the impact of the juvenile justice system on girls accused of crime and violence. Wolff—the director of the Center for Behavioral Health Services and Criminal Justice Research and professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy in New Brunswick—has placed her research over the past decade at the intersection of the mental health and criminal justice systems, most recently on the subject of violence in prison and its impact on prisoners attempting to reenter society.                                                                                  

— Robert S. Strauss


Rutgers Magazine: Describe the world of violence for girls and women.
Miller: What’s most disturbing is just how much violence girls living in poor neighborhoods face—way beyond the national average. By 16, more than half the girls in my study experienced sexual violence and one-third had multiple incidents of victimization. By contrast, college samples might reach 20 percent. There isn’t a lot of economic opportunity in these neighborhoods. And because the communities have high rates of crime, boys sometimes join gangs, which puts girls at greater risk because male peer dynamics often reward boys for mistreating them. 

Simkins: Another contributing factor is that girls’ behavior makes judges angry [and they may give harsher sentences]. Girls start out with some small crime, like disorderly conduct, and end up spending years in placement after placement. In my experience, the girls who end up in detention or placement are guilty of very low-level crimes but have very high mental-health needs. The system has yet to figure out how to respond.

Wolff: Common among the young, there is little thought of tomorrow or the consequences of actions. Living in the now reinforces impulsivity. 

RM: What is the dynamic between boys and girls and, for that matter, men and women?
Miller: It’s complicated, and there is some variation. The common theme is that girls are interacting with boys—and women with men—in the context of gender inequalities. Sometimes, it depends on the nature of their peer groups. For instance, girls who are in primarily male gangs often strive to be like boys to achieve status and recognition. This is often at the expense of other girls. On the other hand, girls who have strong female peer support tend to have an easier time standing up to one another.

Humphries: In instances of domestic violence, it’s important to appreciate the circumstances that lead to women using lethal violence. Women will kill abusive partners when backed into a corner. A trend that partially validates this somewhat controversial finding is that, with the creation of shelters for battered women, there has been a precipitous decline in women killing male partners. Women would rather flee than kill.

RM: What stereotypes assigned to girls and women involved in crime are misleading?
Humphries: “Crack moth­ers,” a term popularized during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and 1990s, did use crack as much as men, but crack mothers became the symbol for all that was wrong in America. Immediate policy responses—such as imprisoning crack mothers when they arrived at hospitals to deliver babies—frightened women from the medical care that may have improved outcomes. An appropriate public health response combined with ample social services would have gone a long way to alleviate the situation. 

Simkins: Programs serving girls have to be accountable and provide juvenile court judges, prosecutors, and defenders de­tailed information about their effectiveness. Judges can’t make good decisions about where to send a girl if there isn’t any outcome data. For example, are they receiving trauma treatment? What is the recidivism rate of the program? It’s time to stop spending hundreds of dollars a day on programs hoping they might do some good.  

RM: How is change going to come about? And what would you like to see?
Wolff: The people inside prison and jail are just like everyone else. They made mistakes, often when facing desperate circumstances, and must live with the consequences. Often severely wounded by neglect, cruelty, and abuse, they felt unsafe and disregarded. They are people who are trying to meet their needs in ways that reflect their psychological deprivation and the learned norms of their communities. They have developed defenses that protect them from further harm, and they are often inattentive to others’ needs, especially when they are incarcerated.

Humphries: In popular culture, motive provides the more satisfying answers to the “why” question. Crime dramas, true crime series, and even news accounts draw on a list of character flaws—greed, lust, or derangements—to supply answers. However, there are other kinds of answers to the “why” question. Unless we get past the stereotypes, we won’t find good answers. And women will continue in these cycles of violence. •