Jo Roberts - What's Love Got To Do With It: How Can Domestic Violence Influence Women’s Involvement in Crime?

In this article Jo Roberts of the Department of Criminology describes her research exploring whether female offenders think that abuse they have experienced has influenced their offending.

New Castle Women - Image by Angus McDiarmid

About My Research

Statistics indicate that female offenders are far more likely to have experienced domestic or sexual abuse than women in the general population. Women’s Aid (2011) note that ‘...between 50 and 80 percent of women in prison have experienced domestic and/or sexual abuse.’ 

Most recently, in its 2013 publication, Strategic Objectives for Female Offenders, the Ministry of Justice also noted that many female offenders have histories of abuse.  In addition, the Ministry of Justice also noted that the proportion of female prisoners that have reported experiencing abuse in their lifetime is double that of male prisoners.

Despite recognition that a relationship between domestic abuse and female offending exists there is a lack of research investigating how this relationship may operate.

Therefore the primary aim of this research is to examine ways in which domestic abuse may directly or indirectly influence women’s involvement in crime.

My research seeks to answer the following questions:

  1. Do female offenders think that the abuse they have experienced has influenced their involvement in crime? If so, how?
  2. Does the type of abuse experienced influence the type of crime committed?
  3. Can the severity of abuse influence the severity of the crime committed?

Research Approach

The research is based upon interviews with female offenders who are serving community based sentences and who have directly experienced domestic abuse.  Using in-depth interviews places the female offenders’ own voices and experiences at the centre of the study.  As the women have committed crime and have experienced domestic abuse arguably they are best placed to explain how the abuse has impacted upon their lives.

Unlike previous research which has focused upon rare and controversial forms of women’s crime, such as murder, this research will focus upon common forms of women’s offending such as:

  • Theft
  • Fraud
  • Drug offences
  • Violent offences

The study will explore how women’s actions and reactions, in response to the abuse they experience, may influence and shape their criminal behaviour.

Although the research will centre on the experiences of the female offenders themselves, a smaller number of interviews with practitioners, (probation service staff), will be undertaken.  Drawing upon a wealth of experience of working with female offenders, the supplementary staff interviews will provide a more objective and overarching perspective of the relationship between domestic abuse and women’s crime.

Research Findings

The research is still in its very early stages, however from the small amount of data that has been collected from completed interviews it is clear that the relationship between domestic abuse and women’s offending is complex.

However there is indication, from the small number of interviews conducted, that domestic abuse may directly and indirectly affect women’s involvement in crime in a range of ways, for example:

Criminalisation of coping mechanisms

Women often turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with the abuse they experience and as a consequence may commit crime under the influence of substances or to support their use of substances. In addition, if a woman’s abusive partner controls the finances and the woman’s access to money, women may commit theft to provide for themselves or their children when they have no money for food or clothing.

Fear of the abuse perpetrator

Women who have experienced domestic abuse are often more scared of their abuser than they are of the law.  One female offender that was interviewed assaulted a police officer so that she would spend the night in a cell, where she felt safer, rather than return home to be physically abused.

Abuse shaping a woman’s identity

When women have experienced abuse this can often have a significant impact upon her identity, in terms of how she views herself, her self-worth and how she thinks others may view her.  One woman who had experienced sexual abuse became involved in sex work because her experiences of sexual abuse had made her not care about what was done to her body.  Another woman committed crime as she tried to reject the control she had experienced throughout her relationship and her offending was seen as a ‘rebellion’.

It must of course be noted that the above information stems from very initial findings that are based on a small number of interviews and come from very early analysis.  Additional interviews will be taking place over the forthcoming months and no final conclusions can be made until all interviews are complete.

It is of central importance to the PhD student that her doctoral research is of relevance to the social world, therefore it is hoped that the findings of the research will have implications for criminal justice policy and practice. As statistics indicate that vast numbers of female offenders (both in prison and those serving community based sentences) have experienced some form of abuse it is important to understand how this abuse may affect a woman’s behaviour. Female offenders who have experienced abuse may have specific needs and therefore specific initiatives may need to be developed to address these needs. In addition, if domestic abuse can be seen to influence women’s offending, initiatives that specifically address this relationship may help to reduce women’s offending and re-offending.  Therefore the research findings may have implications for criminal justice agencies, such as the prison, probation or court services.

About Jo Roberts

Jo Roberts is a research student working towards completion of her doctoral degree in the Department of Criminology.

Jo is supervised by Dr Sarah Hodgkinson and Professor Carol Hedderman.

Department of Criminology
University of Leicester
The Friars
154 Upper New Walk

Jo will present her work at the Festival of Postgraduate Research 27 June 2013 - see Jo's Festival poster.

The Festival is open to all members of the University community and the public - book your place here.

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