Illusions Of A Female Crime Wave

James Alan Fox and Donna M. Bishop

January 4 2004

If you read news coverage of crime statistics these days, you might think that Lizzie Borden is alive and well and wreaking havoc across America. Desperately seeking fresh angles with statistics that are largely trendless, journalists focus on apparently rising rates of arrest and imprisonment among women. Could it be that women have pushed the equal rights movement into one of the last bastions of male domination - criminality?

Understandably, certain cases of female offenders attract widespread attention. And the tendency to highlight female criminality extends beyond cases of homicide.

Recently, for example, the spotlight was turned to a group of suburban high school girls in Northbrook, Ill., who had run amok during their annual hazing ritual. Without diminishing the gravity in any way, we must note that this kind of raucous behavior has long been recurrent among boys. Similarly, girl gangs are a favorite subject for the news media, although they pale in comparison to the extent and seriousness of their male counterparts.

Clearly, those stories that mostly run contrary to our gender stereotypes receive inordinate attention. It is important, however, not to be misled by anomalies. But the statistics would appear to confirm an eclipse of femininity with criminality. According to a recent FBI report, the number of female arrests jumped 14.1 percent from 1993 to 2002, while the trend for males was down 5.9 percent.

Before the alarms sound, we must take a closer look at the numbers. For nearly all of the most serious crime categories (murder, robbery, burglary, larceny/theft and vehicle theft), arrests of women actually declined over the decade. Among women, only aggravated assault arrests were up - a 25 percent surge, from about 48,000 in 1993 to almost 61,000 in 2002. Notwithstanding this increase, crime is still a man's domain. In 2002, nearly 239,000 men were arrested for aggravated assault, four times the number of women.

Much of the dramatic percentage increases in female arrests in other offense categories are the result of a statistical artifact - a low base for comparison. We might be shocked to learn that there was an 80 percent increase in female arrests for embezzlement over the last 10 years. However, there were only 3,279 women arrested for embezzlement in 1993, and not many more (an additional 2,638) in 2002.

When we have a larger base number - as we nearly always do with male crime - the percentage differences appear much smaller. Male drug arrests, for example, rose from about 594,000 to almost 799,000 over the time frame, an increase of more than 200,000 arrestees, or 34 percent. By contrast, female drug arrests rose by fewer than 60,000, from just under 117,000 to about 175,000, but this produced a greater percentage increase of 50 percent.

Arrest rates naturally fluctuate by small amounts on a regular basis. It is only when they rise or fall consistently and substantially that we need be concerned. Among females, there are only three offense categories showing as much as a 30,000 increase in arrests over the past decade - drug offenses (up about 58,000), simple assaults (up nearly 54,000) and liquor law violations (up about 31,000). In substance abuse, the increases among men were actually larger in magnitude, although smaller in percentage terms because of the base-number issue. More important, the three offenses showing the greatest jumps in the number of female arrestees are hardly the kind that Lizzie Borden type legends are made of.

The increasing numbers of arrests of women may say more about how society and the criminal justice system are changing the formal response to offenders than about actual shifts in criminal behavior. The adoption of mandatory arrest policies in cases of domestic violence, for example, has had an impact on women as well as men. Violence by women is far more apt to be directed against an intimate or family member, whereas men more often engage in conflicts with acquaintances or strangers. Women are now being arrested along with their male partners, as are mothers, daughters and sisters who get involved in family squabbles that turn physical.

Homicide is the one area that unequivocally addresses the gender ratio in offending rather than justice processing. Over the past quarter-century, the gender gap among murderers has actually widened: The ratio of male to female killers has risen steadily from 5-to-1 in the mid-1970s to 10-to-1 in recent years. But in the 1970s, the odds were about even that a lethal domestic/lovers' dispute would be committed by the wife or girlfriend; currently, the odds are about 3-to-1 that such episodes involve a husband/boyfriend killing his intimate.

The impression that women are gaining unfavorably in the literal battle of the sexes is more hype than reality. While women have been emancipated from the kitchen, rarely are they incarcerated in a prison for serious criminality.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice and Donna M. Bishop is professor of criminal justice, both at Northeastern University in Boston.