Criminal Justice Section  


Criminal Justice Magazine
Spring 2001
Volume 16, Issue 1

Intermediate Sanctions for Women Offenders Project

By Lauren B. Simon and Mary Katherine Moore

As did most major, urban jurisdictions in the 1990s, Cook County, Illinois, saw an increase in its female jail population-from more than 8,000 in 1990 to nearly 12,500 in 1996. It became obvious that the existing system, designed to handle male offenders, was not adequate to handle a burgeoning population of female prisoners. In addition, a study of the mental health needs of the female detainees at the Cook County Jail revealed that more than 80 percent met the criteria for one or more lifetime psychiatric disorders (L.A. Teplin, K.M. Abram, and G.M. McClelland, Prevalence of Psychiatric Disorders Among Incarcerated Women, Archives of Gen. Psychiatry 53, 505-12 (1996).)

In light of these findings, the Cook County sheriff, in consultation with the chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court, formed the Sheriff's Female Offender Advisory Council. Knowing that the increased demand on the criminal justice system and the issues facing the female offender could not be tackled in isolation, the advisory council sought the participation of key players inside the system (e.g., Cook County board president, public defender, state's attorney, sheriff, judges, probation officers) as well as moving forces outside the system (e.g., academics, private practitioners, service providers). Together, these entities began examining Cook County's sentencing practices and programs for female offenders with an eye towards devising a range of options and services that would allow women to reintegrate into their communities as productive citizens.

To better plan for how to deal with female offenders, the first step was to understand who they are. A review of women offenders illustrated that they differ from their male counterparts in very significant ways. Women are more likely to commit crimes involving prostitution, property, drugs or alcohol and less likely to commit violent offenses. They are more likely to suffer from substance abuse, have a higher ratio of psychological and medical needs and are less likely to have prior felony records. They are more likely to have been sexually, physically, and emotionally abused and less likely to have good self-esteem. They are more likely to be poor, undereducated, unskilled, and disproportionately women of color. They are more likely to be the primary caregivers of minor children.

The advisory council recognized that these characteristics and issues were not unique to just women inmates, but were typical among female offenders throughout the system. As discussions continued, the focus of the council began shifting from advising the sheriff to effecting systemwide change. In July 1996, the advisory council sought to do this, in part, by applying for a federal technical assistance grant from the National Institute of Corrections, Community Corrections Division (NIC) to develop correctional options that are more appropriate for women. These options would decrease the rate of recidivism and help the offender make positive changes in her life and enable her to successfully reenter society. The NIC grant resulted in Cook County forming a policy team of key criminal justice decision makers, human services administrators, and local corrections managers, who were charged with meeting on a regular basis to reach the following goals: to promote collaboration in improving policies and services concerning female offenders, expand the range of intermediate sanctions for female offenders, increase systemwide awareness of unique needs of female offenders, and develop gender-responsive classification assessment instruments. The policy committee consisted of key criminal justice figures who created a steering committee to oversee the project, manage the operations, and report its findings to the policy committee.

In short, ISWO is a collaborative effort of the key players in the criminal justice system engaged in a process to ensure that the system recognizes and responds to the gender-specific needs of female offenders effectively and efficiently. ISWO has committed itself to a process that is fully participatory, where decisions are data-driven; emphasis is placed on sharing information and resources; vision and goals are shared; communication is highly valued; and the development of comprehensive continuum of care is recognized as the most effective means of promoting rehabilitation, thus reducing recidivism. Among the results of this collaborative approach are elimination of redundancy, consensus on the direction the system is moving, identification of each agency's role, more timely and accurate decision making, and, finally, cost reductions. Efforts to gain a thorough understanding of the current level gender-responsive treatment in the county justice system resulted in the development of a complete mapping of the system, creation of an inventory of resources and services available to female offenders, and an exhaustive survey of the data collected at each point in the system. Each of these accomplishments is a first of its kind in Cook County.

Other tangible benefits resulting from ISWO include the emerging recognition among justice personnel that female offenders have special needs that cannot be satisfied by applying standards and services designed for male offenders. ISWO has also begun developing comprehensive gender-responsive assessment tools that will assist with the identification of strengths, risks, and needs at the earliest stage of involvement in the justice system. These tools will allow interventions to be tailored to the individuals' needs and situation. This approach promises to be one of the most successful ways of breaking the cycle of criminal behavior. Finally, the understanding that the development of a seamless continuum of care that can address the many and varied needs of women is most desirable for the offender and the community to which she will return.

The ISWO process has demonstrated that, regardless of each agency's distinct role in the criminal justice system, it is possible for all to work together for positive, systemwide change while fulfilling their respective obligations. Each agency stands in a unique relationship to the female offender: for law enforcement personnel she is the defendant; for corrections personnel she is the inmate; for probation and social service personnel she is the recipient of services; for corrections health services she is the patient; and for defense counsel she is the client. The ISWO collaborative process has made it clear that no matter what each agency's responsibility, recognizing and responding to the unique needs of the female offender benefits us all including, ultimately, the community at large. It has also shown that no lasting system change is possible without the cooperation of each of the key agencies involved in that system.

If all of the benefits cited here as gains from the ISWO project are expanded upon in the years ahead, it is fully expected that Cook County government will begin to witness a reduction in recidivism and the institutionalization of a systemwide approach to the allocation of resources. This collaborative model has great promise for other jurisdictions that have growing populations of women offenders.

Lauren B. Simon is director of countywide operations in the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender. Mary Katherine Moore is the supervisor of the First Municipal Division of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office. Both of the authors participate in the ISWO project.

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