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April 23, 2018

What do we know about female criminality and how to control it?

Opinion image

Women are considerably less likely to commit crimes than men, but the gap is shrinking. According to the World Female Imprisonment List, while the number of men in prison has increased worldwide by about 20% over the last 20 years, that of women has increased by 53%. While women tend to commit mostly property crimes, their involvement has increased across all types of crime.

There are many potential explanations for the increasing trend in female criminality that go from economic to social and cultural factors. To better design policies that contrast the increase in female crime, it is crucial to understand what drives women to become criminals.

The very few studies in economics that focus on female criminals highlight that women respond to incentives (education, expected illegal earnings, probability of arrest, employment opportunities) when they decide whether to commit a crime; though with some difference with respect to men. For example, a recent study based on US data shows that, although an increase in expected illegal earnings leads to a higher criminal participation for both women and men, the effect is larger for men, while both sexes are equally deterred by an increase in the probability of arrest. These findings imply that policies that decrease the value of potential illegal earnings (like black market regulation or an increase in the administrative fine for property crimes) and increase the probability of arrest would discourage women from committing crimes. 

Interventions that prevent individuals from becoming criminals in the first place also work for both men and women. For example, another recent study shows that education has a negative effect on the decision to commit crimes for both sexes, but the mechanisms that drive this causal relationship seem to be different. For men it seems to be explained by the tradeoff between crime and legal work, while for women education increases their opportunities in the marriage market, thus potentially improving social networks, generating stronger social bonds and a stricter informal social control. Furthermore, family formation and children represent an opportunity cost for women to commit crime. This might well have changed in more recent years, however, as women are more active in the labor market, spend less time at home, and have fewer children. In line with these changes in the role of women in society, a recent study finds that employment opportunities discourage criminal involvement for women: the 1996 welfare reform in the US, aimed at incentivizing female work, led to a decrease in female arrests for serious property crimes by almost 5%.

Policymakers who want to fight female crime effectively should implement policies aimed at incentivizing education and participation in the labor market. Family support policies that encourage marriage and childbearing could also be effective in reducing female crime rates.

© Nadia Campaniello

Read more from Nadia Campaniello on women in crime

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We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.