Why don't more women go to jail?

Are just brighter

Once a year, always on March 31, there is a recount. A few months later the Federal Statistical Office published a brochure in which “demographic and criminological characteristics of prisoners” are recorded. One learns something about their age and marital status, their offenses and the imposed terms of imprisonment. And: about your gender. On March 31 of last year there were 48,026 men in German prisons. And 2,931 women. So only 5.75 percent of all prisoners were female.

Are women too smart to commit crimes? Or too stupid? Are you more law abiding? Or do they only get caught less often? And does it all have to do with genetics or with upbringing and the environment?

At first glance, the world of crime is an androcentric one: the man is the norm. It starts with the place where the delinquents are serving their sentences: there are prisons and there are women’s prisons, just as there are football and women’s football, literature and women’s literature. Once this point of view, which makes the man the measure, has established itself, it gains some creative power. Reality is shaped according to prejudice. People who work with delinquent women and men or who conduct research on crime also arrive at fairly consistent predictions of predictable assessments: the man causes trouble, the woman rather not.

It stays that way even if women do end up in prison: In the women's prison in Berlin-Lichtenberg there is an inner courtyard with a sports field, greenhouses and seating areas. Only one corner of the courtyard is separated by low fences. From here you can get to the part of the building that leads to the exit. “The corner,” says Sandra Rodrigues Silva, “is our security area, the women move freely in the courtyard and are not allowed to walk over this fence - and they don't do that either.” Why Rodrigues Silva, who is responsible for public relations at this facility who is in charge of socio-educational work, has to say: "That doesn't work for men."

In male prisons these fences are higher, you have to climb over them. Someone tries to do that every now and then, although it is pointless, because behind the fence it is not freedom but the next locked door that is waiting. “Women in general,” says Rodrigues Silva, “are better at adapting.” Why jump over a fence if it only leads to trouble? Why even take the risk of doing something forbidden and getting caught?

Women are consistently assigned greater impulse control by criminologists. Accordingly, women are less likely to be carried away to rash or illegal acts. The fact that just under six percent of prison inmates are female does not mean that they actually commit just under six percent of all crimes.

A quarter of all suspects are female. The police crime statistics for 2017, for example, count 2,112,715 suspects, 536,578 of them women. And of all delinquents sentenced to money or imprisonment in court, around twenty percent are women. However, their offenses tend to be less serious and, if at all, result in shorter prison sentences. The heaviest punishment, security detention, occurs extremely rarely. On March 31, 2018, 564 men were in preventive detention in Germany, but only two women.

Is there any female crime? And if so, how can it be described? Professor Thomas Bliesener, Head of the Criminological Research Institute Lower Saxony, approaches ex negativo: "The more dangerous the crime, the more violence, the less women are represented."

The crime with the highest percentage of women is simple theft. In 2014, according to criminal prosecution statistics, 64,500 adult men and 27,024 adult women were convicted in Germany under the relevant section 242 of the Criminal Code. This corresponds to a proportion of almost thirty percent of female perpetrators. In the case of convictions for armed theft, however, 2,000 men were compared to just 168 women.

All of these are numbers from the so-called bright field. The counterpart to this is called the dark field, i.e. acts that were not reported at all or for which no perpetrators could be identified. Is there a disproportionate number of women? Bliesener: "Studies give no evidence that the display behavior is different."

So if there are not tons of undiscovered criminals romping around in the dark field, how can the quantitative and also qualitative differences between the sexes be explained? “An obvious question,” says Bliesener. However, one “that is seldom taken up in science”.

Occasionally, however. In her dissertation “Delinquent Women”, the criminologist Tanja Köhler compiled explanations for the gender gap in 2012. A brief, incomplete foray: In the 19th century, biological and anthropological theories were popular that denied women the intellectual, mental and physical ability to commit crimes. The anomie theory from the 20th century caped off the social role of women. It describes the motivation for crime, in short: Those who cannot achieve a socially desirable goal by legal means are resorting to illegal ones. Female law-abiding in this model is explained by the fact that the goals that women supposedly strive for - marriage and family - are more likely not to be achieved through crime. There is a lot to criticize about this thesis, at least that nowadays quite a few women dream of more than kitchen and children.

Consistently women are given more self-control by criminologists than men. What looks the same in the result, however, allows diametrically opposed explanatory patterns: Do women show more compliant, i.e. also law-abiding behavior because they were born that way, or do they accept learned or imposed roles? Feminist theory emphasizes the patriarchal oppression that makes women passive even in crime. The cavalier theory argues consistently sexist: It assumes that women who have become delinquent lie as if printed and are judged more leniently by men.

Finally, when it comes to genetic disposition as such, scientific findings on gender difference are rather vague. Twin studies do give indications that predisposition also plays a role in crime. But that applies equally to women and men. So far, no criminal energy can be ascribed to the X chromosome as such in a valid way.

What these theories have in common, however serious or eccentric they are: They simplify and generalize - and that is always tricky. Being a woman is an important one, but it is just one of the many characteristics that make up a person. Especially when it comes to delinquency, milieu and education, family and financial situation, mental and physical health also play an important role. "Many women here are substance-dependent," says Rodrigues Silva from the Berlin JVA, so the women are often imprisoned for procurement offenses. But: “It's the same with men.” And yet there remains this blatant discrepancy between many men who react to difficult living conditions with crimes that bring them to prison - and comparatively few women to whom this happens.

The international research criminologist Professor Susanne Karstedt says in an interview: “Crime is a male domain. Men are significantly more likely to be perpetrators - but also victims of violence. ”Women, on the other hand, are“ more adapted ”and“ the more conforming sex ”, and they are less likely to be alcoholic and suicidal. With which Karstedt is in line with her colleague Bliesener, who states: "The communication of norms is more intensive and strict with girls." And that also means: violence is a taboo for girls. This also applies to boys and men, but in case of doubt, the violation is considered to be evidence of masculinity. Which in turn could be traced back to social imprinting as well as to genetic disposition. The hormone testosterone, which is more pronounced in men, is after all known to promote aggression and to be a factor in antisocial behavior.

The classics of the prison film genre clearly show how susceptible society is to the care of traditional gender patterns: From “Papillon” with Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen from 1973 to “Brubaker” with Robert Redford from 1980 to “Dead Man Walking” from 1995 with Sean Penn always tells the tragedies of men. In the latter case, a woman, played by Susan Sarandon, is allowed to accompany the hero who has been sentenced to death. Prison series, on the other hand, are particularly popular when they focus on female prisoners. Successful formats such as “Orange Is the New Black” or, in the past, the German RTL series “Behind bars - the woman barn” have little to do with heroism. They entertain with a panopticon of bad girls who at the same time remain true to female everyday patterns: Even behind bars there is bitching and intriguing, and most women are terribly resentful - but in between they also show heartfelt solidarity.

Jail is no fun. And maybe the lower delinquency of women in reality has to do with the fact that they see the drama more clearly. Or rather: that they see the female drama more clearly. For men, prison is more likely to be incorporated into the biography, in case of doubt even as a proof of cool masculinity. "Jail makes men" is a catchy slogan. Rodrigues Silva knows from her work in the JVA for women in Berlin, “you would never say.” Prison is seldom a trophy for women, but it is often a humiliation and stigma.

This illustrates the perception of imprisoned parents particularly clearly: delinquent mothers are considered bad mothers. Fathers in jail are men whose children must be looked after by the mothers outside.

That too is a generalization. Like every label. Every delinquent is different. The only thing that those who go to jail for because of it undeniably have in common is that they are the great exception. If around 50,000 people are in prison in Germany on any given day, that means, conversely, that over 99.9 percent of the population are not doing it at the moment. And besides this fact, these 99.9 percent have nothing that connects them all. Regardless of whether they are men or women.