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‘Nothing about Us without Us’

The people most impacted by criminal justice policies and practices are seldom included in the decision-making processes that affect their lives.

Building on the ‘nothing about us without us’ social movement, this edited volume advocates an inclusive approach to criminology that gives voice to historically marginalized, silenced, and ignored groups.

Incorporating the experiences of service users, academics, and state and grassroots practitioners, this volume considers how researchers might bridge the gap between theory and lived experience. It furthers criminological scholarship by capturing the voices of marginalized groups and exploring how criminology can authentically incorporate these voices.

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Research on crime and offending has traditionally drawn on men’s experiences when theorising on causes, motivations and outcomes for individuals who engage in criminal behaviour. Women have rarely featured in this space, and when they do, oftentimes they are essentialised and deterministic frameworks dominate. In spite of the absence of women’s voices from this research area, there is an underlying assumption that theories on crime and offending are gender neutral, in that the theories that exists are assumed to have relevance for both men and women. Recent research in this area challenges these assumptions and shows that women’s pathways into crime and motivations for offending differ from those of men (Daly, 1992; Chesney-Lind, 1997; Salisbury and Van Voorhis, 2009). In addition, this research shows that women’s experiences of desistance are also not easily mapped onto existing theoretical frameworks.

For example, recent reports have documented that women who encounter the Irish criminal justice system (CJS) have complex traumatic developmental histories compounded in adulthood by mental health problems, addiction, domestic violence, homelessness and challenging family and interpersonal relationships (IPRT, 2013; McHugh, 2013). This mirrors the findings of the Corston report (Corston, 2007) that focused exclusively on women in prison in the UK and found significant divergence in the experience of men and women, primarily in relation to interpersonal relationships, social expectations and gender norms:

First, domestic circumstances and problems such as domestic violence, child-care issues, being a single-parent; second, personal circumstances such as mental illness, low self-esteem, eating disorders, substance misuse; and third, socio-economic factors such as poverty, isolation and unemployment.

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‘Nothing about us without us’ summarizes a burgeoning movement in criminology that is about giving voice to diverse perspectives and a way of doing research. Primarily it refers to the importance of an approach to criminology that is inclusive of those voices that have historically been hushed, marginalized, silenced, or ignored. It also refers to the need for researchers to work with state and grassroots practitioners, especially those who provide a conduit to peoples most impacted by social injustice and crime. This edited volume will explore the importance of diversity and inclusivity in criminological discourses and consider how researchers might bridge the gap between theory and lived experience and how the authenticity of the voices of those who have been silenced can be incorporated into a meaningful criminology. This introductory chapter will explore the conceptual history of ‘nothing about us without us’ before summarizing some of the key themes explored in this volume.

Criminal justice policies are formed through consultation and deliberation between moral entrepreneurs, politicians, and bureaucratic and economic actors (Monaghan, 2011; Windle, 2014, 2018). This, however, often occurs from positions of authority (see Becker, 1963; Stevens, 2020), and those most impacted by such policies are seldom included in decision-making processes (see Joyce & Lynch, 2017; Lynch & Argomaniz, 2017; Askew & Bone, 2019; Leonard & Windle, 2020).

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Gender Matters

Accounts of female offenders’ journeys into the criminal justice system are often silenced or marginalized.

Featuring a Foreword from Pat Carlen and inspired by her seminal book ‘Criminal Women’, this collection uses participatory, inclusive and narrative methodologies to highlight the lived experiences of women involved with the criminal justice system. It presents studies focused on drug use and supply, sex work, sexual exploitation and experiences of imprisonment.

Bringing together cutting-edge feminist research, this book exposes the intersecting oppressions and social control often central to women’s experiences of the justice system and offers invaluable insights for developing penal policies that account for the needs of women.

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The origins of this book lie in collaborative discussions with a group of feminist criminologists, sociologists and psychologists: the Criminal Women Voice, Justice and Recognition Network (CWVJR) who came together to develop research and scholarship which aims to centre women’s voices and lived experiences. This book draws on each co-author’s body of research in their field of expertise and on a range of research projects, practice and activities. As such the aim of this book is to bring together a body of feminist research on ‘criminal women’ that critically examines women’s reasons for engaging in ‘criminal’ activity and the challenges they face in ‘attempting to become women of their own making’ (Carlen et al, 1985: 1).

The authors were inspired by Pat Carlen’s 1985 landmark book made up of four biographical accounts written with four women – Chris Tchaikovsky, Diana Christina, Jenny Hicks and Josie O’Dwyer. ‘Criminal Women tells the stories of four women who, in attempting to become women of their own making, became deeply involved in crime’ (Carlen et al, 1985: 1). Using the narrative/biographical accounts by the four women, Carlen challenged both the ‘othering’ of women who commit crimes and explanations that suggest women should adapt themselves better to social norms. Following the work of Heidensohn (1968) and Smart (1978), Carlen analysed women’s experiences, paying attention to ‘the complex and concealed forms of oppression and social control to which women are subject’ (Smart, 1978, cited in Carlen et al, 1985: 6) and explores the possible options and responses for women in the context of a ‘class riven and deeply sexist society’ (Smart, 1978, cited in Carlen et al, 1985: 6).

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