Facts & Figures

Profile of Provincially Sentenced Women In Ontario

Many of the difficulties experienced by women in conflict with the law are concomitant. Women with substance abuse problems often have histories of physical and sexual abuse in childhood and, as adults, are also likely to have physical health problems and to have developed a variety of emotional and psychiatric conditions. Coupled with a lack of financial or employment resources and single parenthood, these problems create a web from which it would be difficulty to expect anyone to extricate herself without considerable support and assistance. The implications of high levels of abuse among offender populations and their links with other problems such as substance abuse, ill-heath, and low socio-economic status all point to the need for specific programming for women. (Shaw & Hargreaves, 1994: 17)

See also the Executive Summary of the Shaw study and a summary of findings on women under community supervision.

Women in prison do not comprise a typical cross-section of society. This fact has profound implications for their children, who share their world of social marginalization, poverty, and racism. Understanding the profile and needs of incarcerated women helps identify implications for policy and programming. Much useful information can be found in material produced by Statistics Canada and a survey conducted by Margaret Shaw and her colleagues of 243 incarcerated Ontario women (Shaw and Hargreaves, 1994). While almost a decade old, the Shaw studies remain the best evidence we have of the overall profile of women under both community and institutional supervision. The Report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System (Gittens and Cole, 1995) is also a useful resource.

* women are a small proportion of adults under correctional supervision in Ontario

According to the web site of the Ministry of Public Safety and Security, 15% of adults under correctional supervision are women. This figure mirrors the proportion of women who are charged by police (15%) and convicted (13%) in court (Bélanger, 2001). Most women on register in a given day are on probation (90%) or some form of conditional release (6%).  In 2005, women accounted for 21% of persons accused of a Criminal Code offence. In 2003/2005, 23% of adults before the criminal courts were women.  In 2003/2004, 51% of all cases against women ended in a finding of guilt (Kong and AuCoin, 2008).

* women comprise a small group of adults in Ontario correctional facilities

In correctional facilities, women are a minority in a system that was designed for men. On any given day in Canada, only 7% of on-register inmates in provincial facilities are female (Robinson et al., 1998). In Ontario, in 1997/98, 9% of the 33,971 sentenced admissions to provincial custody were women (Reed and Roberts, 1999). On any given day, only 4% of the institutional correctional population is female.  In 2004/2005, women accounted for 6% of offenders in provincial/territorial sentenced custody and 6% remanded into custody. Women in the provincial/territorial correctional system are more likely to be under community supervision than under custodial supervision (93% community vs. 7% custody). 16% of offenders on probation, parole or serving a conditional release were women (Kong and AuCoin, 2008).

* women in provincial custody are under sentence, on remand, or awaiting transfer

In 1992, Shaw and Hargreaves (1994) found that half of the women surveyed were serving a provincial sentence in the facility where they were located, about one third were on remand and the remainder were awaiting transfer to another facility, most the Vanier Centre for Women (due to close soon) or federal custody.

* provincial sentences are short

The median provincial sentence in Canada in 1997/98 was 44 days (45 in Ontario). Because of remission and temporary absence programs, the median time actually served is 24 days (Reed and Roberts, 1999).  In 2003/2004, the median sentence length for females found guilty for crimes against the person and property crimes was 30 days (when sentenced to custody).

* women are primarily incarcerated for property offences or offences against the administration of justice

In the provincial system, Shaw and Hargreaves (1994) found that about one third of women were in prison for property offences, primarily theft and fraud. More recent data show that the two most common offences of conviction for provincially sentenced women are drug offences (13%) and theft (12%) (Finn et al., 1999). According to a Statistics Canada survey, incarcerated women are less likely to be incarcerated for an interpersonal offence (64% of federal and 28% in provincial custody) than male inmates, 74% and 34% respectively (Robinson et al., 1998). According to information on the MPSS web site, property offences accounted for the majority of offences by adult female offenders sentenced to incarceration (32%), followed by administration of justices offences (e.g., breach of probation, unlawfully at large, fail to comply, fail to appear) at 22%; and offences against the person (16%).  Data from three provincial correctional systems (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan) indicate that 31% of women were under supervision for violent offences and 34% were for property offences. (Kong and AuCoin, 2008).

* most incarcerated women are socially and economically marginalized

These women are typically young (average age is about 30), lone parents, and poor. The average woman in prison has less than a grade nine education and was unemployed at arrest (Finn et al., 1999). What little employment experience they have is usually in unskilled and minimum wage jobs.  Data from the three provincial correctional systems named above, indicate that women in these systems are 32 years old on average, 55% are single and 30% are Aboriginal. (Kong and AuCoin, 2008).

* women are less likely to recidivate and constitute a lower risk to the community than men

Compared with their male counterparts, provincially sentenced women have lower levels of the risk factors known to be correlated with recidivism (Finn et al., 1999). Little research in Canada follows women (or men) after release to determine their rate of recidivism, but we believe based on research in other countries that women constitute a lesser risk to re-offend than men. Ontario data is being collected on this point but has not been released in a form that provides a sex breakdown.

* women in prison have higher needs compared with male offenders

On traditional measures of risk/need assessment, provincially sentenced women evidenced higher needs than their male counterparts (Finn et al., 1999). Federally sentenced women evidenced significantly higher levels of difficulty with behavioural and emotional instability, poor family relations, and lower academic and vocational skills compared with male offenders (Blanchette and Dowden, 1998).

* many women in prison have multiple needs

The needs of women can include educational upgrading, vocational training, employability skills, life skills, substance abuse treatment, housing, individual therapy, family therapy, financial planning and health care. Women, especially Aboriginal women and other women of colour, may suffer systemic disadvantages that compound the situation by acting as barriers to full participation in the labour force. Legal issues can include disputes over custody of their children and child-welfare proceedings in family court.

* most incarcerated women are parents

The majority (71%) of institutionalized women surveyed by Shaw (1994) had children and most of them (80%) were parenting on their own for some or all of the time. Half had been teenagers when their first child was born. One in ten women surveyed by Shaw (1994) was pregnant at the time.

* Aboriginal women are over represented

The Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System found that Aboriginal women were admitted to provincial custody at a rate five times that of white women (Gittens and Cole, 1995). The disparity was greater for women than for men. In 1992/93, 9.2% of provincial admissions of women were Aboriginal compared with only 5.6% of male admissions.  30% of women in provincial custody are Aboriginal (Kong and AuCoin, 2008).

* over-representation of visible minorities more evident among women than men

In 1992/93, one third of adult female admissions to Ontario prisons belonged to visible minority groups compared with one quarter of males (Gittens & Cole, 1995). Asians, East Indians and Arabs are under-represented in penal populations relative to their proportion in the Ontario population. However, Black women are admitted to provincial custody at a rate almost seven times that of white women. As with Aboriginals, this rate is higher than is the case for Black men. At Vanier Centre for Women, admissions of Black women increased 630% over the six years between 1986/87 and 1992/93. The comparable figure for Caucasian women was 59%.

* the profile of women in prison may be changing but more research is needed

Concern is commonly expressed that the rates of crime among women, particularly violent crime, are rising. Shaw and Dubois (1995) reminds us of these important facts:

Women commit proportionately far less violent crime than men; violent offences constitute a small proportion of all female offending; the violent offences with which women are charged tend to be less serious than is those for men; most increases in women's offending are accounted for by property offences; any increases in violent offending are accounted for mostly by minor assaults; race and social class must also be considered along with gender in understanding women's violence.

References Cited

Bélanger, B. (2001). Sentencing in Adult Criminal Courts, 1999/00. Juristat: Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 21(10).

Blanchette, K. & C. Dowden (1998). A Profile of Federally Sentenced Women in the Community: Addressing Needs for Successful Reintegration.

Forum on Corrections Research, 10(1): 40-43.

Gittens, M. & D. Cole (1995). Report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System. Toronto: Queen's Printer for Ontario.

Finn, A., S. Trevethan, G. Carrière & M. Kowlaski (1999). Female Inmates, Aboriginal Inmates and Inmates Serving Life Sentences: A One Day Snapshot. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics: Juristat, 19(5).

Kong, R., & AuCoin, K. (2008). Female offenders in Canada. Retrieved 08/28/2009. from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/85-002-x2008001-eng.pdf.

Reed, M. & J. Roberts (1999). Adult Correctional Services in Canada, 1997-98. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics: Juristat, 19(4).

Robinson, D., F.J. Porporino, W.A. Millson, S. Trevethan & B. Killop (1998). A One-Day Snapshot of Inmates in Canada's Adult Correctional Facilities. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics: Juristat, 18(8).

Shaw, M. (1994). Ontario Women in Conflict with the Law Subsidiary Report: Children and Parenting. Toronto: Ministry of the Solicitor General and Correctional Services.

Shaw, M. & S. Dubois (1995). Understanding Violence by Women: A Review of the Literature. Ottawa: Correctional Service of Canada.

Shaw, M. and S. Hargreaves (1994). Ontario Women in Conflict with the Law: A Survey of Women in Institutions and Under Community Supervision in Ontario. Toronto: Ministry of the Solicitor General and Correctional Services. We have a copy of the Executive Summary on our web site and as well a summary of what was found about women under community supervision.