This article originally appeared in issue 26 of the Howard League’s Early Career Academics Network (ECAN) bulletin, published 10 April 2015. Past issues of the bulletin can be downloaded from the Howard League website.
Linnéa Österman is a PhD candidate at the University of Surrey, and was the 2014 recipient of the Howard League’s bursary to attend the British Society of Criminology Conference. This is an edited version of the paper presented at the conference.
Introduction: Women, crime and criminal justice in cross-national contexts
This article presents a selection of findings from my thesis; a cross-national qualitative study looking at the female journey through crime and criminal justice in Sweden and England. Situated at the crossroads of feminist criminology and cross-national qualitative frameworks, my PhD research aims to make a unique contribution to the internationalisation of criminological knowledge about women, crime and criminal justice. Owing to concerted efforts by feminist scholars and activists working in the field, the last couple of decades have seen the plight of women in criminal justice contexts making a decisive entry onto the criminological arena.
However, reflecting traditional borders within the criminological field, this growth in knowledge is not evenly distributed across the globe. Specifically, research on gender and crime is largely produced in the Anglo-American world, with studies predominantly applying monocultural perspectives (Barbaret, 2014). What we know about women who offend is therefore very limited cross-nationally. Moreover, corresponding to criminology’s characteristic focus on the extreme, this is especially true for countries with lower crime rates and milder forms of sanctioning (Barker, 2013). This is arguably significant, as cross-cultural research carries the potential to both challenge and improve structures and models. At a time when an increasing amount of political and academic attention is being dedicated towards improving penal responses to women – ultimately aiming to make sanctions less damaging and more effective – cross cultural research can provide important knowledge about alternatives and hence, offers a valuable foundation for reformative debates. ‘Nordic exceptionalism’ versus ‘Anglophone excess’?
Recently, penal policy in the Nordic countries has received an increasing amount of attention. Sweden is a country commonly presented in the literature as an example of ‘Nordic exceptionalism’ (Pratt, 2008); characterised by low rates of imprisonment, humane prison conditions and a criminal justice process
accentuating normalisation. England, in line with the broader ‘Anglophone’ group, is conversely a country often depicted as an example of penal excess (Pratt and Eriksson, 2013), with a justice system orientated more towards processes of differentiation. This categorisation is linked to the fact that much of the
Anglophone world has of late witnessed increasingly punitive criminal justice discourses, with an unprecedented system expansion. Worryingly, this growth has been especially marked for women caught up in criminal justice processes (Gelsthorpe, 2004). In contrast, Sweden has in recent years seen a decrease in imprisonment rates, with lowered demand for prison places leading to, for example, the closure of four prisons in 2013 (Sveriges Radio, 2013). In view of such diverse penalty trends, Pratt (2008: 135) suggests that the Scandinavian model should ‘in the contemporary era of penal excess’ be given ‘the opportunity to act as a focal point of difference and opposition’.
However, penal systems cannot be separated from their wider context, being intrinsically linked to historical developments and cultural values. To borrow Melossi’s (2001) familiar conceptualisation of penality; crime and punishment are understood to be embedded in broader socio-economic, political and societal processes and norms. So for example, key explanations of the Nordic exceptionalism thesis include particularly inclusive penal policies (Cavadino and Dignan, 2006), based on strong welfare investments and high levels of trust and solidarity. In turn, it is suggested that such processes derive from a historical culture of equality, supported by a consensual orientated political culture as well as an educationally-responsible press (LappiSeppälä, 2012; Pratt and Eriksson, 2013). Due to how penality is embedded in broader societal structures, direct ‘policy transfers’ in criminal justice are rather unlikely. That said, learning from other cultural models is a good starting point for bringing to light assumptions inherent in one’s host culture (Barbaret, 2014) and can, at a bare minimum, act as a powerful tool for ‘stretching our imagination of what is possible’ (Nelken, 2010: 23).
The study: Framing and findings
Grounded in a feminist methodological framework, my research draws on 24 lifestory narrative interviews with women who have had repeated interactions with the criminal justice system, across Sweden and England. In a modest attempt to start to redress the overwhelming dominance of quantitative work in comparative criminology (Nelken, 2010), and with the aim of unpacking qualitative mechanisms of change, the study focuses exclusively on the lived experience of criminal justice. Moreover, the research very much emphasises the importance of situating the female experience of justice in the totality of lived experience, including in the context of gendered pathways into crime and particular female experiences of criminal justice processes. This brief article will focus specifically on one particular part of this journey, namely women’s routes out of crime and criminal justice (CJ).
By comparing routes out of crime and CJ for women in different national contexts, it becomes evident that different structural models, in criminal justice terms specifically as well as in wider society more generally, carry significant meaning for how the desistance process is experienced firsthand. Although it should be pointed out that there are no magic bullets, the findings from this comparative analysis indicate that the Swedish model may offer a setting which is more conducive to the formation of lasting female desistance narratives. Two particularly influential processes are identified to underpin this finding: Firstly, a more robust and accessible infrastructure for change, manifest in well-resourced and durable service provisions addressing individual need. Secondly; the opening of societal doors and the enabling of more positive relationships between the reforming individual and wider society, including the
use of state capital to open up opportunities for inclusion and participation for people with offending histories. The following section explores these two processes in further detail, highlighting the core underpinning qualitative mechanisms identified in the analysis.
1) Infrastructures for change: Addressing ‘internal’ and ‘external’ barriers to change
On the whole, barriers to change feature more prominently in the English female narratives. The type of barriers present can be categorised into two groups; ‘external’ and ‘internal’. For anyone remotely familiar with the area of gender and crime, none of these barriers will come as a real surprise.
Major external barriers include lack of stable housing, lack of access to liveable incomes (sufficient to support both themselves and in many cases also children) and ‘entrenchment in the scene’. This theme of ‘entrenchment’ relates to an identified barrier of immobility, i.e. being unable to re-locate from an area associated with offending and, very commonly, long-term drug use. An illustration of this theme is for example found in a woman’s inability to re-locate away from a neighbourhood where she has survived on the streets via prostitution, and an associated struggle to re-construct a local identity that is deeply entrenched in not only drug-use and offending, but also in sexual exploitation and victimisation. In this way, ‘entrenchment’ and ‘housing’ act as mutually reinforcing ‘external’ barriers to change.
This study also identifies major internal barriers to change, including a strong link between mental well-being and the ability to make a successful route out of crime. Notably, this is a universal link, presenting much more symmetry across the sample groups than the external category. Indeed, the presence of mental health issues among women who offend is welldocumented in criminological literature, with Baird (2003) suggesting this amounts to an ‘epidemic’ for women in the English prison estate. In turn, this is a forceful reminder of the importance of situating the experience of women in criminal justice in the totality of lived experience, with women’s pathways towards crime often being paved by victimisation and trauma. I conceptualise such traumatic and/or abusive factors and experiences in the woman’s biography that, in one way or another, are linked to her route towards offending as ‘pathway luggage’. An important finding in this area is that, comparatively, the women in the English sample overall carry more ‘pathway luggage’ at the entry point of CJ. In turn, the weight of such ‘luggage’ inevitably makes it more challenging to overcome barriers to change.
Rather than presenting new knowledge, these highlighted external and internal barriers reinforce much of what we already know about the nature of offending among women. The next level of analysis, however, is arguably of more significance. By exploring how these barriers are experienced in different national contexts, different types of infrastructures that enable and/or support positive change can be identified. I conceptualise these as structural ‘ladders’. It is at this point that the most pronounced differences in experience begin to emerge between the two sample groups. Specifically, the Swedish narratives are rich in stories of subjective experiences of structural ladders being put in place for overcoming both external and internal barriers to change. In contrast, these are very rare in the English data.
Looking at these ladders in more detail, a chief example of a structural ladder for overcoming internal barriers to change is detected in the area of alcohol and substance support service provision. Many of the Swedish women have spent periods of up to 18 months at a time at residential rehabs to address their drug and alcohol problems. This stands in stark contrast to the English experience, where drug support for women typically involves short-term day programmes, with minimal residential options. Importantly, the data suggests that the value of these provisions needs to be understood in terms of cumulative impact over time, providing essential building blocks for change in the long-term. Through durable alcohol and substance support services, it is argued that the route out of crime and CJ becomes more accessible, as the woman gains, as expressed by one participant; ‘lessons in ordinary life’. In addition, an important cumulative impact of quality treatment over lengthier periods is notable improvement in the woman’s physical and mental health.
A second example of a structural ladder, relating more specifically to the area of external barriers, is found in the area of housing. An initial step on this ladder is about the provision of stable and secure housing. As argued by Carlen (2003: 34); the suggestion that women should think about their life-choices when they do not even have a roof over their heads is ‘irresponsible nonsense’. However, going one step further, interlinking housing with the noted barrier of entrenchment, an additional step on this ladder is about providing options for geographical relocation. In practice, this translates into a choice in terms of where the woman wishes to ‘work’ on her route out of crime and CJ. Thus, while the vast majority of participants in the Swedish setting have re-located away from regions where they have an active offending identity, through a well-built support context, the majority of the English women have spent years in local temporary accommodation, where they typically have daily contact with familiar criminal/drugusing networks. Importantly, the aspect of choice identified in the Swedish data emerges as a hugely valuable ladder in itself, allowing the woman to take ownership of her desistance process.
2) Opening societal doors: Opportunities for participation and inclusion
The second process is more closely related to the end destination of the journey, which is conceptualised here as participation and inclusion in ‘mainstream society’. The findings suggest that the Swedish women view inclusion and participation opportunities as more accessible, feasible and attractive in comparison to the English women in this study. An important consequence of this is that the Swedish women experience a strong subjective sense of support, which in turn makes a significant contribution to a lived feeling of inclusion, legitimacy and, importantly, a willingness to participate. The analysis suggests that this internally experienced emotion of inclusion and legitimacy provides a far stronger motivator for maintaining change than any external force, such as threats of further sanctions and exclusion.
In the journey towards a desisting lifestyle, employment is found to play a key role. Though employment is generally identified as useful for building routines and filling time, the data suggest that for longterm lasting change additional factors are significant. Thus, if a job is to be a valuable desistance tool it needs to be a job that, at the very least, allows the woman to stay above the poverty line. Moreover, this financial position needs to be situated in the context of other challenging strenuous circumstances, such as being in debt. Indeed, the vast majority of the women in this study, across the sample groups, have experiences of huge debts. This is where the quality of employment comes to the forefront, marking a significant difference across the two samples. For example, several women in the English sample had recently resumed shoplifting for food, despite being in part-time employment, as their casual jobs did not provide enough income to cover rent, bills and food. Recognising that homelessness and/or living in hostels is a huge ‘puller back’ to the lifestyle that they are trying to desist from, they had to make difficult decisions with a limited income. Contrasting this to the Swedish data, this ‘survival narrative’, linked to a lack of living wage opportunities, is completely absent. The narratives around the theme of a ‘good job’ in the Swedish setting go beyond survival factors and also interlink to the chance to start to re-build a new life and construct a non-offending identity. This includes, for example, being able to pay off debts and start to develop, and engage in, new interests, which in turn contributes to reduced levels of boredom and the formation of more pro-social networks.
Having identified the importance of employment, when we explore the particular experiences of women (re)entering the labour market following involvement in the criminal justice system, it becomes evident that differently organised labour markets, interlinked to wider state structures, can act as either an enabler or barrier to a successful route out of crime and in to societal spaces of inclusion. In recognition of the fundamental value of employment for successful routes out of crime and CJ, Sweden has used creative employment solutions to enable better connections between people exiting criminal justice and
potential employers. Specifically, this is done via active labour market policies and wage subsidy schemes. Thus, a collaboration between different statutory organisations, including probation, social services and the job centre, offers training and work guidance for people in Sweden with criminal records, leading on to periods of work experience and consequently, in most cases, the offer of full-time employment via a wage subsidy scheme. This subsidy to the employer is then gradually phased out, over a maximum of four years. All of the women in the Swedish sample have overwhelmingly positive experiences of this type of collaborative work program linked to wage subsidy schemes, and many are now in permanent employment as a consequence. Looking at the qualitative experience of this, in addition to the financial benefits of earning a decent living wage, the women particularly emphasise the value of having been given a chance to prove themselves in a working role, being trusted with responsibility, having an active daily routine and becoming part of a new pro-social setting. In turn, these narratives are closely intertwined with subjective emotions of inclusion and self-worth, along with a lived sense of making a valuable contribution to society. These experiences are understood to have significant positive influences on the desistance process, relating to heightened levels of personal motivation to stay ‘straight’, as well as having the financial means to effectively construct a lasting nonoffending/non-drug-using
Concluding reflections: Cross-national lessons in women’s routes out of crime and CJ in Sweden and England?
This article has briefly presented a selection of findings from my thesis, looking specifically at women’s routes out of crime and CJ in Sweden and England. Ultimately, my argument concludes that if the goal of criminal justice policy and practice is to help more women to desist from crime, it is necessary to look beyond the borders of criminal justice and also include a consideration of broader socio-economic processes. Via a cross-national analytical lens, evidence has been presented to suggest that wider structural mechanisms can be put in place to help create routes out of crime and CJ for women that are shorter, more feasible and more attractive. A starting point for this involves building robust and durable infrastructures addressing a diverse range of internal and external barriers to change. Additionally, these processes need to include the opening up of routes in towards participation and inclusion for women with offending histories; many of whom have lived for extensive periods in social exclusion. Looking at lessons from a European neighbour, this article illustrated an example of how active labour market policies can effectively be utilised in this context as a structural desistance tool to open up vital access to employment.
For these types of structural desistance tools to be considered in the ‘Anglophone’ setting, however, a fundamental shift in strategy is required. Specifically, policy formation needs to give emphasis to long-term thinking, underpinned by inclusionary values that actively aim for accessible citizenship processes and positive participation. The current European climate, including a suggested ‘fracturing’ of the neoliberal hegemony in the UK following the 2008 financial crash (Reiner, 2012), as well as a renewed wider European interest in exploring more egalitarian social solutions (Andersson, 2009), arguably provides an ideal time to open up the debate on alternative, less exclusionary, models of criminal justice. Primarily this is a humanitarian argument concerning societal investments in individuals and the search for a more equal society. Secondarily, this is about mitigating against relapses back into crime and CJ, thus producing long-term savings for not only an incredibly costly but also hugely damaging system.
About the author
Linnéa Österman is a doctoral candidate in the final stages of her PhD at the University of Surrey, Guildford, UK. She holds a BSc in Criminology and Citizenships Studies from London South Bank University and an MSc in Criminology, Criminal Justice and Social Research Methods from the University of Surrey. Linnéa’s research interests revolve around gender and crime, comparative criminal justice, critical inquiry and crossnational qualitative research methods.
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