Research on Women Offenders-Justice Policy Center-The Urban Institute-DC Public Safety Radio

See for our television shows, blog and transcripts.

Radio Program available at

We welcome your comments or suggestions at or at Twitter at

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the Nation’s Capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Our guest today is Nancy La Vigne. She is the Director of the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute, , one of the premier research organizations in the United States, non-partisan. I think everybody at any level of government, federal government, state government, local government, has used research from the Urban Institute in terms of looking at whatever it is that they want to look at. They have an extraordinary reputation and one of the things that I want to do is to focus on a program that they did. It’s called…or a piece of research called Returning Home. Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Re-Entry, which represents the only published empirical research with a good sample size, looking at the statistical differences between the experiences of women versus men as they come out of the prison system, thus the title of the show today is Research on Women Offenders. Nancy La Vigne, Director of the Justice Policy Center, Urban Institute, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Nancy La Vigne:  Thanks. It’s great to be here.

Len Sipes:  Alright. Nancy, I said that you’re non-partisan, that you’re extraordinarily well-known. None of that, there’s not an ounce of exaggeration in any of that. The Urban…but from your lips, the Urban Institute does what?

Nancy La Vigne:  Well, the Urban Institute was established in 1968 as a nonprofit, non-partisan research organization, originally designed to evaluate the great society programs of President Johnson, but it has since expanded to include both domestic and international work. We have ten different research centers spanning education policy, health policy, tax policy and, of course, I’m the head of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute and within the Justice Policy Center we span a wide array of research from gang and youth violence prevention to courts and, of course prisoner re-entry is one of the cornerstones of our research portfolio in the Justice Policy Center.

Len Sipes:  I mean you’ve looked at law enforcement practices, correctional practices. Heck, you’ve even looked at cameras, speed cameras.

Nancy La Vigne:  Oh. Public surveillance cameras, yes.

Len Sipes:  Public surveillance cameras.

Nancy La Vigne:  That’s right.

Len Sipes:  I mean you’ve looked at just about everything there is to look at within the criminal justice system. I always find it delightful when I have an opportunity to talk to you, but this particular piece of research, Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Re-Entry, you’re talking about a piece of research and for the lay person out there, I mean it’s all sorts of research, some good, some bad, some empirically correct, some not empirically correct. What you have is a large piece of research and you’re talking about several jurisdictions where you take a look at men and women coming out of the prison system to establish the differences between their experiences and one of the things that is, I think, extraordinarily important from your research is the fact that there is a huge difference in the experience in men coming out of the prison system. Empirically, women have a greater degree of substance abuse, a greater degree of mental health problems. They don’t have the economic training or the job training before…

Nancy La Vigne:  You’re stealing my thunder here.

Len Sipes:  Oh, I`m sorry. I`m sorry; this is profound. There is a profound difference and I`m not quite sure everybody realizes this.

Nancy La Vigne:  Yeah. Well, let me start a little by explaining the impetus behind the larger study called Returning Home because at the time we launched it, which was now several years ago, there weren`t a lot of studies that looked beyond what we call recidivism. So there would be researchers who looked at people who were released from prison and determined what percentage of them ended up being returned to prison and with the available data they had, which was mostly administrative records from the Department of Corrections, they were able to say, well, people who were sentenced for these types of crimes or for this length of time were more or less likely to return to prison. That`s what I call recidivism studies, but no one had really done a re-entry study, understanding that re-entry is not a point in time. It`s a process, right? So no one had conducted the kind of study that looked at all the different aspects associated with re-entry success and failure and the only way to do that is to interview people behind bars and track them in the community after their release and interview them in the community as well. So much of the data that helps us explain re-entry success or failure has to come from the people who are experiencing re-entry.

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Nancy La Vigne:  So that’s why we decided to launch Returning Home. It was a tremendous effort. It involved four different states and, of course, in one of the states we did look at women exiting prison, actually, two because in Maryland we did a pilot where we did a small sample of women there. We ended up looking in Texas because Texas had such a large volume of all kinds of prisoners leaving that we could get a sufficient sample size of women in a relatively short period of time.

Len Sipes:  Second largest correctional system in the country.

Nancy La Vigne:  Yes, but what we learned in Maryland about women in our pilot study, it was similar to what we found in the Houston sample and rings true when I have conversations both with women who have experienced re-entry as well as service providers who are supporting their successful re-entry. So I think there’s a lot to be said about the experiences of women that perhaps is understudied because when we think of re-entry we look at the numbers and we see that the vast majority of people leaving prison are male and while this is true, it’s also true that the share of women behind bars has increased at a greater rate than that of men.

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Nancy La Vigne: Over time. So even though they’re a small population, they’re an increasing populationand their experiences are different, as we’ll discuss in ways that I think have relevance for the development of re-entry programs that may often be overlooked if you’re only looking at a male population.

Len Sipes:  Now, in no way shape or form am I going to try to create a sense of sympathy or justification for crimes committed. If you do the crime, you do the time. I think that’s the prevailing wisdom in so many jurisdictions throughout the country, but women offenders are not only different from male offenders in terms of their experiences when they get out – tell me if I’m right or wrong; feel free to criticize me or if I don’t get it correctly – most women offenders, before they go into the prison system, have multiple histories of abuse by somebody. In my mind, so many of the women offenders that I’ve been in touch with throughout my now 30 years in corrections, were tragic figures. I mean they suffered immense abuse, sexual abuse. Rape is not uncommon not only by people who they know, but in many cases family members. To me, there is no wonder that the rates of substance abuse are higher, that the rate of mental health problems are higher because they come from such violent backgrounds and there is a huge difference between the violence that they encountered in their younger years versus males. Am I right or wrong?

Nancy La Vigne:  I would say that you’re right. I mean certainly women who end up behind bars have extensive histories of substance addiction and mental illness that are very difficult to disentangle from their personal histories of sexual victimization and it’s hard to know which came first, but you can understand how they’d all be interrelated.

Len Sipes:  Most of the women I’ve talked to tell very tragic tales. We’ve had many women offenders before these microphones and they have told, for public airing, their experiences and you just feel as if you’ve just gone through a hugely emotional experience after interviewing them. A lot of times after the program, I’ve said, “Do you really want this to go out on the air? Do you really…you have the choice. I won’t even put this out.” I said, “Do you really want to be that honest and that brutal about your background,” and a lot of them, to a person, they have said, “Yes. I want this to go out. I want to talk about this.”

Nancy La Vigne:  Well, I imagine in some regards it’s cathartic and also I think that a lot of women want to share their stories to shine a bright light on this issue and help people understand better that, yes, they may have committed crimes, but there’s a bigger story to be told.

Len Sipes:  And that bigger story, generally speaking, is not told, correct? I mean one of the things that’s astounded me in my years within the criminal justice system is how little the story is told. It’s as if we’re free to confront the massive amount of abuse and in many cases flat out child abuse in terms of the families that these individuals come from.

Nancy La Vigne: Yeah. I think that’s right. I’m certainly no expert on the child abuse and specific to women who end up being in the criminal justice system, but thanks for it. That’s right.

Len Sipes:  But before we get into the points of your research, I just wanted to sort of set a stage in terms of the fact that if people are wondering why there’s such a difference in between men and women coming out of prison, it’s my contention…you don’t have to respond to this. It’s my contention that it has much to do with the environments that they came from before they went into the prison system. I was reading in your report where there were two sorts of responses from men and women in terms of getting out. One was I want to control my own life. That was men. And women, I want to reunite with my children.

Nancy La Vigne:  Oh, it’s actually a little bit more colorful than that.

Len Sipes:  Oh, go ahead.

Nancy La Vigne:  So we, in the interviews that we had with people prior to their release, we had a question at the end, which is what survey designers would call an open-ended question, so we didn’t give them the answers. We invited them to come up with their own answers and it was what are you most looking forward to after your release? And, literally, and I’m not exaggerating, the most common answer among men was pizza.

Len Sipes:  Pizza.

Nancy La Vigne:  And second to that, calling my own shots and the single greatest, by a long shot, answer among women was reuniting with my kids. Seeing my baby again and it really speaks to different priorities as well as potentially different support systems.

Len Sipes:  The majority of women getting out of the prison system have children. I’ve seen stats up to 80%.

Nancy La Vigne:  That’s right.

Len Sipes:  So, when they come out, not only do they have to deal with a higher rate of substance abuse, not only do they have to deal with a higher rate of mental health problems, they’ve got to figure out some way to find work. Then they have less of a work background than men and they have to reunite with their children and somehow support their children. That stacks the odds against women offenders to a degree that it almost seems impossible that they can accomplish all that.

Nancy La Vigne:  No, it definitely makes it more difficult for women that when we compared women to men in our Texas study, we found that they were twice as likely to end up back behind bars than their male counterparts and clearly these challenges that are great for anybody leaving prison, but to know that they’re even more extreme for women, it’s…

Len Sipes:  They were twice as likely to return to Texas?

Nancy La Vigne:  Mm-hmm.

Len Sipes:  That’s amazing.

Nancy La Vigne:  Mm-hmm.

Len Sipes:  That’s truly amazing and do you think that the stats that you came up with in terms of your own research provides a bit of that explanation?

Nancy La Vigne:  Oh. Yes, for certain, particularly with when it comes to substance abuse. Women were more likely to engage in substance abuse following their release and we know, already, that they had more extensive histories of addiction. It’s very hard to address addiction behind bars, especially if you have a treatment program that doesn’t continue in the community. The research is very clear in that regard and so even if you have the best intentions and you do get access to treatment behind bars, if you don’t get in the community and you’re susceptible to all these temptations, you’re more likely to use and those who are more likely to use are more likely to end up back behind bars. The thing of it is, though, what we found in Texas and it’s hard to know how much this rings true in other locations, but in Texas we found that women were less likely to have access to substance abuse treatment even though there were much, had much greater histories and addiction levels.

Len Sipes:  It seems as if…again, I don’t want to go overboard with this. I talked about what happened before prison. Now, we’re talking about what’s going on inside a prison and the research focuses on leaving prison. They have greater histories of substance abuse, mental health issues, but they do not have the same opportunities that many male offenders have. They’re…

Nancy La Vigne:  To have treatment behind bars.

Len Sipes:  Again, it just seems that the deck is continuously stacked against women offenders.

Nancy La Vigne:  But it has real implications for policy and practice.

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Nancy La Vigne:  Just to know that you can make a difference by giving these women more access to services and treatment behind bars. I mean, that’s huge.

Len Sipes:  Absolutely, it’s huge. The research does indicate that not many people get any of these services at all within the custodial setting throughout the country.

Nancy La Vigne:  Right. Yeah and we’ve actually found that there’s a high degree of mismatch between those who get it and those who really need it as well.

Len Sipes:  Right and then…

Nancy La Vigne:  It’s not…that’s the scarce resource that’s not even well allocated.

Len Sipes:  That should be allocated towards whom?

Nancy La Vigne:  Those in most need and who they…the women.

Len Sipes:  But the higher risk offender as well as the women offender?

Nancy La Vigne:  Absolutely. I mean if you’re looking at, you know, you have a re-entry program. You want to look to medium and high risk because that’s where you can make the biggest difference.

Len Sipes:  In terms of going over your stats in Maryland, half the women we interviewed reported daily heroin use. Daily heroin use in the six months leading up to the most recent incarceration compared with slightly more than a third of men and half of women also reported daily cocaine use during that period compared with 22% of men. So we’re not just saying that there is a disparity between use. We’re talking about huge disparity.

Nancy La Vigne:  It’s huge disparity. Now, the heroin use statistics may be unique to Baltimore, which has historically had a heroin…

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Nancy La Vigne:  But then that doesn’t seem to show any signs of subsiding, but still. I mean you see the differential between the men and women and it’s tremendous.

Len Sipes:  From a policy point of view, where do we go with all of this? I mean it’s pretty abundantly clear that we are ignoring women offenders. I read somewhere along the line that women do better in treatment programs than male offenders considering the fact that they’re 80%, I think. This is the figure that I’ve read, so just say somewhere between 60 and 80% have children. This means a lot to society to provide these programs because we can take them out of circulation, out of the criminal justice system, if they do better in treatment programs than men and all those kids suddenly have a source of income. They have their mom. They’re being taken care of. There are huge ramifications from a societal point of view in terms of your research.

Nancy La Vigne:  Yeah, I would agree with that. I’d also clarify a point that…

Len Sipes:  Please.

Nancy La Vigne:  Sometimes I have a hard time wrapping my head around because we talk about children. We think that they’re minors. They’re children, right? But, actually, when we delved deeper into the issue of support systems for both men and women when they were leaving prison, we looked at family support and we asked people do you have someone in your life who is there for you, who supports you, who will provide housing for you, support you financially, etc. and we were heartened to learn that women did, almost as much as men. They reported roughly the same degree of family support but the sources of support were very different. For men, it was usually either kind of senior maternal figure in their lives – a grandmother, an aunt or a significant other, partner, sometimes a sister. For the women, it was typically their adult children. So when you talk about children, actually, a lot of these women have adult children. If you look at the average age of release, it’s something like 34, 35 years. Maybe a little bit older for women than men and they have adult children of their own who they are relying on to support them.

Len Sipes:  Good point. Good point. Thanks for the clarification. I do want to get on to the issue of family support and I do want to get on to the issue of the difference between men and women when they come out dealing with that level of family support, but let me reintroduce you; ladies and gentlemen, Nancy La Vigne. She’s the Director of the Policy Justice Center…Justice Policy Center – I’m sorry – for the Urban Institute here in Washington, D.C.,, so family support is crucial for all offenders coming out of the prison system. Your research shows that the greater the degree of family support while they’re incarcerated, the better they do when they get out, correct?

Nancy La Vigne:  Well, actually, the greater the support post-release, the better that you do. However, that is predicted by more contact with family behind bars.

Len Sipes:  Right. If there’s continuous line of communication while they’re behind bars that paves the way…

Nancy La Vigne:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  For more communication, more interaction, more…

Nancy La Vigne:  More support.

Len Sipes:  Support, more cooperation when they get out. Most prisons are located literally hundreds of miles from the areas where these offenders came from.  In the District of Columbia, they all go to federal prison.

Nancy La Vigne:  That’s right. Most of the women are housed in…oh, I think it’s Pennsylvania and some of them as far as Texas.

Len Sipes:  Mm-hmm and West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Texas, but they are spread out all over the place, but even when the 14 years when I worked for the Maryland Department of Public Safety, Hagerstown, Cumberland, the Lower Eastern Shore, they were within the state, but they might as well have been on the other side of the moon.

Nancy La Vigne:  Right, in terms of transportation.

Len Sipes:  Right. Cumberland’s not easy to get to.

Nancy La Vigne:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  From the Baltimore, Prince Georges County areas where most of Maryland’s crime occurs, I mean it’s quite a hike to get to some of these prisons. So they’re isolated and they’re far away. How do you maintain that level of contact when you’re isolated and far away?

Nancy La Vigne:  Yeah. Well, it’s very difficult and we did have a family component of our Returning Home study where we interviewed family members and discussed both the challenges of staying in contact with their incarcerated loved ones as well as the challenges associated with welcoming them back into their homes and communities and by far, the single greatest reason for not having contact with their incarcerated family members was the distance of the prison from home. Texas was unique at the time. They didn’t allow phone contact…

Len Sipes:  Really?

Nancy La Vigne:  With prisoners at all, which is stunning. So it was mostly letters. That’s it.

Len Sipes:  That’s amazing.

Nancy La Vigne:  I believe that’s since changed, although, in other states, other jurisdictions, you will hear complaints about the high cost of toll calls and it’s actually a tax on the inmates and their families, which I’ve heard some correctional administrators justify as the only means that they can have to raise funds to provide programs and services, but it seems a little bit wrong-headed to create barriers to contact with prisoners and their family members just to generate resources to serve them. It’s almost like they go against each other, those two efforts.

Len Sipes:  I think it’s the State of Washington and I read this just within the last couple of days is they’re now providing video contact between offenders and family members and that struck me as being the best of all possible worlds.

Nancy La Vigne:  That’s right and they’re looking into that for the DC code felons as well and it’s something that I would recommend as a great compromise given the distance. It’s really so disruptive to a family to set out to journey to a prison to see their incarcerated family member, not just the actual distance or cost of gas, but the nature of a prison setting is such that you never know when you arrive whether they’re going to be in lockdown and there’s no visitation. It could be either cancelled for the day or more likely what happens is they say we’re on lockdown. We don’t know when we won’t be on lockdown, so you’re just waiting and wondering what to do. Often, people bring children because they think it’s important for the children to see their incarcerated parent and yet, these environments aren’t kid-friendly.

Len Sipes:  No, they’re not. As somebody who’s been in and out of a lot of prisons, it’s downright brutal.  It really is for the family members and for the kids.

Nancy La Vigne:  Right, so video conferencing is a great way to achieve that family contact that’s so important in shoring up support on the outside.

Len Sipes:  Now, in terms of employment. One of the things that we find is that per your research is that they don’t have the same employment opportunities or backgrounds as males and they come out and that lack of employment and the lack of skills really hurt them upon release. I mean it just keeps going on and on and on in terms of the disparities between males and females.

Nancy La Vigne:  And that’s right and if you…it’s no surprise when you consider that if women have more extensive histories of substance addiction, they’re going to have more spotty employment history, so they’re already going into it at a disadvantage. Certainly, after release they’re less likely to find employment. Even those women who do find employment end up earning less than males at about $1.50 less per hour than their male counterparts and then – I know, I feel like a broken record on the substance addiction issue – but to me, I know a lot of people say the key to successful re-entry is finding a job and I always say, “Is it really?” Because what good does it do to find a job if you haven’t dealt with your addiction issues?

Len Sipes:  Right.

Nancy La Vigne:  It’s just giving you resources to go and buy drugs and continue your habit and soon enough you’re not showing up at work. You’ve lost your job. You’re committing crimes to buy drugs and you’re back behind bars.

Len Sipes:  Or your mental health issues.

Nancy La Vigne:  Right.  I mean most of us these days…I say us.  You and I, Leonard, are really immersed in this issue of prisoner re-entry, talk about a holistic approach that you can’t really just tackle prisoner re-entry by looking at one thing and certainly employment is critical but especially for women, you need to look at it holistically.

Len Sipes:  Well, I mean, look. Just the differences on employment between males and females where 38% of men had jobs lined up, 17% of women had jobs lined up before leaving. In the prison system 61% were employed upon leaving – men.  37% of women were employed upon leaving the prison system. Obviously, the stats show and I don’t want to beat this point to death, but I don’t want to leave it alone either. I mean the disparities between men and women are huge. I go back to the same thing I said before. They do better in programs than men. They have better track records.

Nancy La Vigne:  I think I know why.

Len Sipes:  Go.

Nancy La Vigne:  I think it’s because…one of the findings we had in comparing men to women is their expressions for need for help and…now, granted. We’ve already given a lot of examples of why women should need more help, but they’re also more willing to say I need help. So that’s a different kind of an attitude entering a treatment program knowing that you need help and admitting it readily and I think that makes you more open to receiving it and benefiting from it.

Len Sipes:  I did one year of jail or job corps where the younger individuals were given the choice by the court – go to job corps or go to jail. Seventy percent of the women that I encountered were wonderful compared to maybe 30% of the men. Now, that may just be my own internal bias, but the women that I encountered said to themselves, “I’m in a jam. Job corps can give me a skill. It can give me the tools. It could relocate me if necessary. I want to reunite with my kids.” The women were by far my best students.

Nancy La Vigne:  Well, you just referenced reuniting with children. I’m getting back to that topic. I mean, clearly, that women have a bigger stake in making good on the outside because of their ties to their children, whether they’re grown children or not. Certainly, if they’re minor children, they have even more of a vested interest and we even found that among the men in our research, those who had stronger ties to their minor kids…

Len Sipes:  Right.

Nancy La Vigne:  Did better on the outside.

Len Sipes:  Did better. Everybody does better on the outside.

Nancy La Vigne:  More likely to get a job, more likely to stay out of prison.

Len Sipes:  They have the motivation and it’s the kids and family that provides them with that motivation and it’s the contact that they have while in prison that builds that bridge to that motivation.

Nancy La Vigne:  But make no mistake, I mean just having a child doesn’t give you that stake. I mean what we don’t know well, although, we know some from our research, is what those relationships were like before the incarceration. So in some cases, including in the case of women, they had very little, if any, contact with their kids because they were on the street.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Nancy La Vigne:  Someone else was caring for their kids and had been for some time now.

Len Sipes:  But the idea of being in prison and having the opportunity to contemplate who they are, where they are…

Nancy La Vigne:  What’s important to them.

Len Sipes:  What’s important to them. Where they want to go. Most of the individuals that I have met within the correctional system that is the first thing that they express. That they express a) regret for everything that’s happened and b) they really have this burning desire to reunite with their kids. I’m not quite sure, quite frankly, that that burning desire is there with the men.

Nancy La Vigne:  No. I think it’s not. There’s been some more qualitative research in the UK looking at fathers and trying to get them more bonding with their children prior to their release that suggests that it’s possible and that there are great benefits from doing so, but we’re starting at a different place, I think, with men than with women.

Len Sipes:  I think we’re starting at an incredible different place between men and women. Final couple of minutes – if you’re talking to the Mayor of Milwaukee, if you’re talking to an aide to a Governor in California, what do you say?

Nancy La Vigne:  Well, certainly, don’t cut your re-entry programs. We understand that financial times are very difficult right now and that it’s easy to think about the things that people don’t see as the easiest to cut, what to put on the chopping block. Are you going to close a prison? Are you going to cut a program? I would argue keep the programs in place and look at those programs and think about whether they are truly catered to the people that you’re trying to serve. In the case of women, I’ve heard some people argue that you can develop re-entry programs that are the same for men and women and I think that there might be some truth to that, but it doesn’t acknowledge the different way women approach treatment, approach learning and approach life. So programs that are more tailored to women who are leaving prison, I think, could really benefit them greatly.

Len Sipes:  About 30 seconds left. Are women the low-hanging fruit of the criminal justice system? Women offenders, are they the ones who, if you provided the resources, would get you a good bang for your dollar, a good investment for your correctional dollar?

Nancy La Vigne:   I don’t know that I can say that. I think that because of their extensive drug addiction histories, they’re a tough population to deal with. Certainly, the benefits can be great, but it might take more effort at the outset before you can see those benefits.

Len Sipes:  But if you have an impact with women offenders or offenders across the board, that can save states literally tens of millions of dollars.

Nancy La Vigne:  Absolutely and, of course, in the case of women, if you’re supporting their successful re-entry, you’re also supporting their families and kids.

Len Sipes:  Nancy La Vigne, the Director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute.  Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being with us on DC Public Safety. Before we go,, it’s the website for the Justice Policy Center for the Urban Institute.  Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being with us. Thank you for your cards, letters, your phone calls, your emails, your suggestions, your criticisms. We appreciate your participation in the show and have yourself a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

%d bloggers like this: