Principles of Drug Abuse Treatment for Criminal Justice Populations - A Research-Based Guide
What are the unique treatment needs for women in the criminal justice system?

Although women are incarcerated at far lower rates than men, the number and percentage of incarcerated women have grown substantially in recent years. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of men in prisons and jails grew by only 5 percent, while the number of incarcerated women grew by about 15 percent (Sabol et al. 2010). Women in prison are likely to have a different set of problems and needs than men, presenting particular treatment challenges that may call for tailored approaches (Greenfield et al. 2007) (figure).

Incarcerated women in treatment are significantly more likely than incarcerated men to have severe substance abuse histories, co-occurring mental disorders, and high rates of past treatment for both; they also tend to have more physical health problems (Staton et al. 2003; Messina et al. 2006). Approximately 50 percent of female offenders are likely to have histories of physical or sexual abuse, and women are more likely than men to be victims of domestic violence. Past or current victimization can contribute to drug or alcohol abuse, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and criminal activity.

A graph showing substance abuse, mental health, health problems, and treatment for incarcerated women. Incarcerated women in treatment have severe substance abuse histories, as well as co-occurring physical and psych problems
Incarcerated women have high rates of substance abuse, mental disorders, and other health problems.
*Note: Graph shows lifetime percentages except for multiple drugs, alcohol, and cocaine, which are the percent reporting use in the 30 days prior to incarceration.(N=60)

Treatment programs serving both men and women can provide effective treatment for their female patients. However, genderspecific programs may be more effective for female offenders, particularly those with histories of trauma and abuse (Pelissier et al. 2003). Female offenders are more likely to need medical and mental health services, child care services, and assistance in finding housing and employment. Following a comprehensive assessment, women with mental health disorders should receive appropriate treatment and case management, including victim services as needed. For female offenders with children, parental responsibilities can conflict with their ability to participate in drug treatment. Regaining or retaining custody of their children can also motivate mothers to participate in treatment. Treatment programs may improve retention by offering child care services and parenting classes.