Conclusion: Gender, Psychology, and Justice: The Case for Systemic Change

Gender, Psychology, and Justice: The Mental Health of Women and Girls in the Legal System - Linda Wolfe 2014

Conclusion: Gender, Psychology, and Justice: The Case for Systemic Change

Julie R. Ancis and Corinne C. Datchi

The authors of this volume have answered critical questions about the experiences of diverse women and girls in the U.S. justice system and highlighted the complex interactions of gender, race, and class and their impact on legal decisions and interventions in family court, drug court, law enforcement, community corrections, and detention facilities. The chapters of this book have drawn attention to a number of themes that are specific to justice-involved women and girls and relate to their distinct social and psychological experiences and concerns.

The Relationship between Systemic Processes and Women’s and Girls’ Entanglement with the Justice System

First, women’s and girls’ presence in various justice arenas is a multisystemic issue: Micro- and macro-level social processes are linked to individual behaviors that bring women and girls into contact with justice officials. These processes occur both outside and inside a justice system that is generally oblivious to or not equipped to take into consideration human differences and contextual factors that influence individual actions. In particular, the lack of awareness about gender, race, and class produces adverse consequences for women and girls: Social biases and disadvantages go unchallenged and complicate women’s and girls’ ability to resume independent living outside the purview of the legal system; they also contribute to women’s and girls’ further victimization while in the hands of the law.

The chapters have identified several contextual factors that influence girls’ and women’s contact with the justice system. Gender violence is a pervasive theme and a primary risk for women’s and girls’ involvement in various legal arenas. Specifically, family and intimate partner violence, parent-child conflict, as well as neglect and abuse, sexual and physical, increase the likelihood that women and girls will engage in “survival crimes.” For example, running away from abusive homes increases girls’ vulnerability to homelessness and the likelihood that they will engage in criminal activities—theft and prostitution—to provide for their basic needs. Similarly, women who have experienced intimate partner violence may reach out to the justice system for assistance and protection. Unfortunately, women often come face to face with legal officials’ social biases and victim-blaming practices that further traumatize them and put them and their children at risk for continued exposure to family violence. Blaming is also apparent in the social discourses that describe justice-involved women as individuals who prefer to depend on public resources and as “bad mothers” who make poor choices. Blaming is a mechanism that deflects attention from the socio-structural inequities that contribute to women’s entanglement with the justice system.

Economic deprivation is an additional contextual factor that accounts for women’s participation in crime and their subsequent contact with the justice system. In particular, poverty has a significant influence on women’s and girls’ experiences in the justice system: It limits their access to strong legal counsel, their ability to seek health- and mental health—care, and their ability to avoid incarceration.

Recent legal policies and guidelines have also played a critical role in women’s justice involvement: They have redefined women’s and girls’ attempts to cope with violence and social disadvantage as delinquent or criminal behaviors worthy of legal punishment. School-based fights, parent-child conflict, breaking curfew, sex trafficking, and addictions have become the target of law enforcement and offender rehabilitation, and have increased women’s and girls’ vulnerability to arrest, prosecution, and sentencing regardless of the circumstances that have led to their participation in illegal activities.

Since the 1980s, federal initiatives to address the problem of drug abuse have resulted in record-high incarceration rates, with Hispanic and African American women being the most impacted by the far-reaching and get-tough approach of the United States’ war on drugs. Upon returning home, these women face additional legal challenges—state laws that bar individuals with a felony conviction from housing and financial assistance, and thus perpetuate their economic disadvantage and diminish their chance of success in the community. In sum, laws, justice policies, and guidelines have largely contributed to the social disenfranchisement and legal entanglement of diverse women and girls, and contributed to the reproduction of institutionalized discrimination.

Institutionalized discrimination operates through gender, class, and racial biases that influence legal decisions and interventions. In the criminal justice system, these biases shape the perception that non-gender-conforming behaviors are suspicious and unlawful, and lead to the profiling and arrest of law-abiding citizens. They also explain why girls and women who do not conform to gender role expectations receive longer jail and prison sentences; in this case, incarceration represents an attempt to punish and control behaviors that deviate from gender norms. The intersections of racial, ethnic, and class biases with gender stereotypes determines justice officials’ assessment of female offenders and the level of monitoring and intervention aimed at diverse women and girls under correctional supervision. For example, Black girls are frequently perceived as more aggressive and crime prone than White girls, particularly when they act in ways that are not gender conforming, and are thus subject to harsher punishment.

Social prejudices and myths pervade the unsubstantiated theories and assumptions that often guide the behaviors and decisions of justice officials and mental health professionals. These include age-old notions that women are hysterical, emotionally unstable, manipulative, and somehow deserving of abuse. Many of these myths perpetuate victim blaming and give rise to harmful decisions such as reversing custody and sending children to live with an abusive parent, as well as arresting minor-aged girls for prostitution and women domestic violence victims. These stereotypes, biases, and myths justify legal practices that further expose women and girls to violence and victimization while they are under legal supervision. They also restrict justice officials’ ability to consider contextual variables and integrate information about gender, race, class, and culture into justice decisions and interventions.

Institutionalized Discrimination Exacerbates the Concerns of Justice-Involved Women and Girls.

In addition to gender-based myths and stereotypes, the authors of this book have described how the justice system often involves a “one size fits all” approach to law enforcement and criminal offending and have shown that gender “blindness,” or the expectation that treatment for men can be generalized to women, remains a challenge. In particular, women involved in the criminal justice system are offered services originally designed for men with violent offenses. These services do not match the nature and severity of women’s and girls’ criminal behaviors (e.g., nonviolent, property, and drug-related crimes); they marginalize women’s and girls’ unique social, medical, and psychological concerns. For example, women’s primary caregiving role and its implications for rehabilitation in the community as well as in prison have yet to receive full consideration. Correctional institutions provide limited opportunities for ongoing and health-promoting parent-child contact, and imprisonment creates significant distress and difficulties for mothers behind bars, including psychological pain associated with prolonged separation from children and the termination of their parental rights based on the Adoption and Safe Families Act enacted by Congress in 1997. In turn, this distress exacerbates their mental health problems and diminishes their ability to comply with the rules and policies of correctional settings, hence resulting in technical violations that prolong their involvement with the justice system.

When legal practices do not take into account the interconnected systemic factors that constitute women’s pathways into the justice system, they often reproduce the abuse dynamics that many girls and women experience in their families and communities. Instead of finding protection and restitution in the legal system, girls and women are often punished and held accountable for the consequences of actions that are not fully under their control. For example, women in contested custody disputes with violent ex-partners find the same abuse dynamics perpetuated in family court where the behaviors and decisions of justice officials and mental health professionals are influenced by dual relationships, economic gain, and limited expertise in intimate partner violence. Likewise, incarcerated girls in juvenile detention facilities are often subject to the same violence they experienced at home: Being yelled at, demeaned, threatened, and physically restrained by staff further exacerbates the trauma-related impairment of girls and women exposed to interpersonal violence outside the justice system.

Lastly, the authors of this book note that justice involvement is associated with social stigma and that this stigma is particularly significant for girls and women whose contact with justice officials is perceived as evidence of “bad” and “un-ladylike” behavior or as a violation of gender norms. Shame intensifies psychological distress and increases social marginalization in ways that reduce girls’ and women’s chance of success in the community. Together with legal punishment and marginalization, it is a social mechanism that serves to enforce gender conformity.

There Is a Dire Need for Psychological Research, Interdisciplinary Partnerships, and Evidence-Based, Gender- and Culturally Responsive Legal Interventions.

The authors of this volume have drawn attention to the lack of research on gender- and culturally responsive programming for diverse women and girls in various arenas of the justice system. A number of obstacles to conducting such research must be acknowledged. A primary obstacle concerns the fact that gender- and culturally responsive interventions are not necessarily standard practice. Moreover, such research requires consideration of context, including the micro- and macro-level dynamics described in the chapters (Ancis 2004). Such variables are not always measured due to methodological challenges or lack of consideration on the part of the researchers. Careful attention to the process and outcome of interventions as relates to multiple aspects of psychosocial functioning is also indicated, requiring careful and time-intensive longitudinal observations.

The paucity of empirical knowledge as it applies to legal policies, procedures, and treatment interventions perpetuates mythology, stereotyping, and discriminatory practices that harm girls and women. This book’s authors have outlined a number of areas requiring further investigation. For example, there is a critical need for data on the concerns and needs of lesbian, bisexual, queer, gender-nonconforming, and transgender girls, who, for the most part, have remained invisible in the juvenile justice system. Transnational research on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border is also necessary to document mental health trends and resources for immigrant Mexican women and their children. Such research will require the development of interdisciplinary partnerships to gain a deeper understanding of women’s and girls’ involvement in and interactions with the legal system, using an ecological, social justice approach to the study of legal practices and their outcomes for female populations.

In addition to the need for research, it is important that existing empirical evidence be accessible and applicable to various justice settings. The authors’ analyses of girls’ and women’s experiences in various justice settings highlight the need for attention to guidelines that promote sensitivity and responsiveness to gender and cultural diversity. Guidelines, such as those developed by various APA task forces, include recommendations for further research as well as principles for best practice with diverse women and girls. For example, there is now a substantial body of scientific knowledge detailing domestic abuse and its impact, including the ways in which abuse dynamics manifest in family court. Yet, mental health practitioners, attorneys, and judges continue to rely on discredited theories such as parental alienation. The tendency to blame women and girls or hold them accountable for conditions for which they have no or limited control makes attention to their experiences of victimization and, relatedly, gender-responsive practice less likely. Increased awareness and application of guidelines is warranted.

Ensuring that clinicians remain informed of the current literature and translate it into evidence-based recommendations for justice officials is essential to promoting gender and cultural responsivity, equity, and fairness for diverse justice-involved women and girls. It is also imperative that mental health professionals work with judges, attorneys, correctional personnel, and other legal officials to implement an intersectional approach to the treatment of justice-involved girls and women. At a minimum, they should be prepared to educate justice staff about existing guidelines for the treatment of diverse populations, including the American Psychological Association’s (APA) guidelines for psychological practice with girls and women (2007); the APA guidelines for multicultural education, training, research, practice, and organizational change (2003); the APA guidelines for psychological practice with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients (2012); the APA guidelines for psychological practice with older adults (2014); and the APA guidelines for psychological practice with transgender and gender-nonconforming people (2015). These guidelines may serve to create gender- and culturally affirming environments in various justice systems, with a focus on empowering diverse girls and women and enabling them to participate in treatment decisions, rather than defining them as the object of mental health and legal interventions.

Translating evidence-based psychological guidelines into recommendations for legal practice is a critical next step: This will involve promoting a relational approach to justice interventions that interrupts the dynamics of abuse in girls’ and women’s family and social history; advancing a comprehensive approach to treatment that combines psychological and support services in order to address girls’ and women’s various social and mental health concerns; and using culturally sensitive assessment strategies to identify and target the contextual factors that influence girls’ and women’s mental health and legal outcomes. Strategies that harness girls’ and women’s strengths rather than stress punishment and self-reformation are needed.

When psychological evidence serves as a foundation for legal policies, practices, and interventions, it is possible to shift attention from girls’ and women’s intrapersonal variables to the conditions of their involvement in the justice system, including the structural inequities and pervasive trauma that shape their lives, from their criminal behaviors to men’s role in female offending, and from retribution to prevention at individual, family, community, and social levels. Systemic change through advocacy and prevention is necessary to improve the psychological and social outcomes of justice-involved women and girls. This may involve, for example, the development and implementation of antidiscrimination policies that promote the rights of diverse girls and women—the right to safety, equal opportunities in employment, education, health care, and housing.

It is equally important that psychologists and other mental health clinicians be better prepared to work with justice-involved women and girls during and after their graduate training. APA-accredited programs in psychology are required to provide evidence that their curriculum addresses issues related to individual and cultural diversity in ways that promote the development of multicultural competencies. However, these programs often adopt a single-course approach to multicultural education that has limited capacity to increase gender and cultural responsiveness in clinical practice (Petierse et al. 2009). The lack of a unifying framework for multicultural training is also a concern and an obstacle to advanced multicultural competencies (Ancis and Rasheed Ali 2005). The chapters of this book provide specific recommendations for training that support the development of the knowledge and skills necessary to work with diverse women and girls in the U.S. justice system, including knowledge of the pathways that lead to women’s involvement in the justice system, their diverse experiences of legal interventions, as well as awareness of the gender, sexual, racial, and class biases that permeate legal decisions and interventions.


The authors and editors of this book propose a contextualized and evidence-based approach to the treatment of women and girls in the justice system. This approach takes into consideration the ecological processes that influence justice policies and practices and that have a primary impact on girls’ and women’s legal, social, and psychological outcomes. Gender- and culturally responsive justice depends on the translation of sound psychological research into new and revised legal and therapeutic frameworks for working with women and girls in various arenas of the justice system.


American Psychological Association. 2015. “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming People.” American Psychologist 70 (9): 832—64. doi: 10.1037/a0039906.

American Psychological Association. 2014. “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Older Adults.” American Psychologist 69 (1): 34—65. doi: 10.1037/a0035063.

American Psychological Association. 2012. “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Clients.” American Psychologist 67 (1): 10—42. doi: 10.1037/a0024659.

American Psychological Association. 2007. “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Girls and Women.” American Psychologist 62 (9): 949—75.

American Psychological Association. 2003. “Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice, and Organizational Change for Psychologists.” American Psychologist 58 (5): 377.

Ancis, Julie, ed. 2004. Culturally Responsive Interventions: Innovative Approaches to Working with Diverse Populations. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Ancis, Julie R., and Saba Rasheed Ali. 2005. “Multicultural Counseling Training Approaches: Implications for Pedagogy.” In Teaching and Social Justice: Integrating Multicultural and Feminist Theories in the Classroom. Edited by Carolyne Z. Enns and Ada L. Sinacore, 85—97. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Pieterse, Alex L., Sarah A. Evans, Amelia Risner-Butner, Noah M. Collins, and Laura Beth Mason. 2009. “Multicultural Competence and Social Justice Training in Counseling Psychology and Counselor Education.” Counseling Psychologist 37 (1): 93—115. doi: 10.1177/0011000008319986.