IQ Sub 70: Interactions with the criminal justice system of female offenders and ex-offenders with an intellectual disability

J. Toohey 

Flinders University South Australia, School of Law and Commerce

While there has been a considerable amount of research into offenders with intellectual disabilities (IDs), most of this work has been in relation to men who offend. Increased public interest and research activity has been directed towards women and crime; however this has mostly been linked to types of criminal activity, women as victims and perpetrators of crime, psychopathology, custodial provision and differences in sentencing.

The fact is there are far less women offenders than men. Most of our existing prisons cater to the different security levels of male offenders. Women’s prisons generally house offenders together – if mental illness is diagnosed, female offenders with an ID will occasionally be placed in a secure psychiatric wing. Indigenous women with an ID (particularly if English is their second language) are especially disadvantaged in a system that is ostensibly patriarchal.

For the most part, research into female offenders and ex-offenders with an ID has been quantitative, although the use of anecdotes has sometimes been included. This anecdotal information portrays a picture of multi-layered disadvantage. Such disadvantage is evident at each stage of the CJS process:  contact with police, court appearances, sentencing, imprisonment and post-release. Many of these women are poor, have little education and few vocational skills. Their vulnerability leaves them open to many forms of abuse – physical, sexual and coercion that sees them unwitting participants in acts of crime.

Female offenders with an ID are less likely to be granted bail or parole due to the fact that they have no stable accommodation or means of support. Little is offered by way of help either in prison or post-release. Programs for women in prison are sparse indeed, yet it is this lack of provision of appropriate programs and services that directly contributes to a lack of stability and perpetuates the ‘cycle of offending.’


Julie-Anne is a PhD candidate and teacher of Criminology at Flinders University, South Australia. She has taught Criminology at the University of South Australia and the University of Tasmania, where she was also a research assistant for Professor Rob White. She holds a Masters’ Degree in Criminology and Corrections from the University of Tasmania. Her research focus was the importance of  maintaining connections between incarcerated parents and their children.Her current research project examines the lived experiences of female offenders and ex-offenders with an intellectual disability in criminal justice systems in Australia and overseas.

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