What Are The Typical Characteristics Of Female Offenders?

Last Updated on May 11, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team

There is not often a clear definition of what an offender looks like or how they act. The reality is that anyone could be an offender of the criminal justice system, so it’s not always fair to characterize people in terms of whether they fit the mold of a typical offender or not. 

Having said that, more research is coming out that shows us what a typical offender might look like so that we can act before it’s too late and stop them from committing the crime in the first place. 

If we can successfully identify women who fit the mold of a typical female offender, the chances of altering the likelihood of crime are improved. Not only that, but realizing that female offenders have similar characteristics can help form patterns on why the crimes are committed in the first place. 

Typical characteristics of female offenders

The population of offenders across the world is predominantly male, however, the number of female offenders is rising every year. Between the 1980s and the 1990s, the rate of incarceration of women in the USA has tripled. 

Not only that, but the USA has the highest incarceration rate of women in the world, at 127 for every 100,000 of the population. 

The rise in incarceration rates for women has spurred a lot of people to wonder why it is happening – what is causing more women to engage in criminal behaviour that was not as present in the 20th century? 

The research that people have been conducting to answer this question has helped determine a number of typical characteristics shared by female offenders. Below are some of these characteristics displayed from typical female offenders. 

Victimization through abuse

Salisbury and Van Voorhis (2009) found that there were three main pathways leading to the incarceration of women. One was the victimization beginning in childhood. Both childhood victimization and sexual abuse are often seen in offenders, both male and female, but are more common among female offenders. 

A 1999 study from Browne, Miller, and Maguin showed that out of 150 incarcerated women, 70% reported suffering from serious violence in their younger years. Furthermore, 60% reported to be sexually abused in their childhood and adolenscent years. 

There is a link between childhood and adulthood victimization, meaning that people who have suffered from childhood abuse are more likely to be victims of domestic violence. 

Sexual abuse in childhood often leads to a number of other issues such as physical violence, absense of care, and a lack of adult supervision. These, as well as the trauma of sexual abuse as a child, increase the liklihood of criminal activity in later life (Siegal and Williams, 2003). 

Childhood victimization can lead to numerous pathways to criminal activity, such as substance abuse and mental illness. 

Not only is victimization through abuse a common character of female inmates, but it has also been found to increase the likelihood of recidivism. Mental illness has also been seen to increase the chances of recidivism. 

Characteristics that can be seen, and put down to the victimization through abuse, include living on the streets, staying in a violent relationship, engaging in prostitution, and engaging in illicit behaviors in exhange for money. 

Lack of human capital

Another common pathway to the incarceration of women is lack of human capital. This is an umbrella term coined by Salisbury and Van Voorhis (2009) and refers to the combined assets of skills, capacity, and knowledge that allows us to act in certain ways. 

A lack of human capital prevents people from being able to achieve personal goals through a lack of confidence, academic achievement, and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is incredibly important in preventing women from engaging in criminal activity, so a lack of it increases the incarceration rates. 

Moreover, a lack of human capital also has detrimental effects to a person’s psychological well-being. This can also lead to criminal activity, arrests, and incarcerations. So, there are numerous pathways in which lack of human capital can lead to the incarceration of women. 

A lack of human capital can make life much harder in countless different ways. The root of the problem could have come from a lack of education, self-efficacy, family support, or healthy relationships. 

What happens with a lack of human capital can be a domino effect, with one of the above issues leading to inability to get employment and therefore financial stability. This is just an example of how this pathway can lead to criminal activity. 

A poverty-stricken background

Many female prisoners have a background in poverty, which can either come from being born into it or a result of lack of human capital. The desperation to gain money for bills and living expenses can force women into criminal behavior. 

Not only that, but if an inmate was suffering from poverty before being sentenced, they are more likely to repeat an offense due to still being in that financial trouble when they are returned to society. 

A study by Holtfreter et al (2004) showed that there was a link between a provision of services, such as housing, healthcare, and education, and a reduced rate in recidivism. This is because the offenders aren’t pushed to criminal activity through necessity. 

In another study, it was found that high-quality employment and healthy relationships had a direct influence on the prevention of criminal activities. 


As you can see, there are a number of typical characteristics in female offenders and a clear vision of why the inmates have been pushed into criminal activity. 

A lot of these characteristics have to do with circumstance – some of which hold a lot of weight in early childhood. VIctimization through abuse can begin in the early years due to physcial and sexual abuse, and lack of human capital can spawn from poverty, poor schooling, or lack of ,attention from caregivers. 

Not every female offender incarcerated will share these typical characteristics, but enough studies have shown that there is a clear link between these issues and criminal activity.