• Karly Burns

The Representation of Women in the Criminal Justice System

If I asked you to think about the typical offender within the criminal justice system, what comes to mind? For many, the characteristics thought about are middle aged, white, and male. It is less likely that a woman comes to mind. This fault in misrepresentation of women not committing crime has immense impacts on female offenders. They face the double-edged sword of not only committing their crime but also being a woman while doing so. It is not common for women to commit violence. Thus, when it happens, it causes a moral panic in society. These repercussions fall onto the women, and they are labelled for not only being a criminal but a female criminal.

The definition of a double-edged sword can be defined as “something that has or can have both favorable and unfavourable consequences” (Webster, 2022, para. 1). In terms of female offenders, it is more adverse. Where the unfavourable consequences are committing a crime and being a female. In contrast to the Amanda Knox case, this becomes quite apparent. Both Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were wrongfully accused of the murder of Meredith Kercher (Ott, 2020). However, when looking at media publications, it becomes a story about Knox rather than Sollecito. Why would this be the case if they were both accused of the same crime? Knox had a past sexual history where she received the nickname “Foxy Knoxy” (Ott, 2020). The media used this as it goes against the ideal roles of a female person. They used her female identity to frame her crime. This is not seen in the media for Sollecito as he was the typical offender, white and male. We can identify how the media portrays women for their involvement in the criminal justice system. By using their disparity from gender roles, it progresses into something more substantial than just a criminal offence.

When looking at crimes committed by female offenders it leads into a moral panic. A moral panic defined by Frothingham (2021), is a “public mass movement, based on false or exaggerated perceptions or information that exceeds the actual threat society is facing” (para. 1). In the case of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, a moral panic was unveiled. Both Bernardo and Homolka were sentenced for the sexual assault and murder of multiple women (Butts, 2018). The media used Homolka’s identity against her as it did not support the ideals of a female. More so, a female criminal. Homolka was framed for her wealth and beauty. Which led to the conception of, how could someone like her commit such a heinous crime? Since she redefined the boundaries of a typical female offender, it was exaggerated in the media, leading to society believing violence in women was a major concern. On the contrary, Bernardo was not as highlighted in the media as Homolka was. Although they were both accused of the same crime, Bernardo fit the ideals of a typical offender. Yet again, white and male. The concern here is why women are stigmatized within the media when a female commits an equivalent crime to a male.

By looking into the cases of Amanda Knox and Karla Homolka, it reveals the representation of women in the criminal justice system. That is, the double-edged sword and moral panic they instigate. It is not an issue of the crime they committed, but rather who was committing it. This progresses into repercussions not solely on an imprisonment sentence but a new identity. It shapes how they are seen as female offenders. However, women should not be held to a different standard than men in the criminal justice system. All things considered; they did commit the same crime. The only difference here is one was a man and the other a woman.


Butts, E. (2018, October 31). Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka Case. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/paul-bernardo-and-karla-homolka-case

Frothingham, M. B. (2021, October 6). Moral Panic and Folk Devils (Cohen 1972). Simply Psychology. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/folk-devils-and-moral-panics-cohen-1972.html#:~:text=Moral%20panic%20is%20defined%20as,values%2C%20interests%2C%20and%20safety.

Ott, T. (2020, December 2). Amanda Knox: A Complete Timeline of Her Italian Murder Case and Trial. Biography.com. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.biography.com/news/amanda-knox-murder-trial-timeline-facts

Webster, M. (n.d.). Double-edged Sword Definition and Meaning. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/double-edged%20sword#:~:text=Definition%20of%20double%2Dedged%20sword,Linda%20Connors

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