Women in Criminal Justice Article Review: Maher and Daly

I’m taking an online class this summer entitled Women in Criminal Justice. One of our ongoing assignments for this class is to post article reviews. Although I’m new to this field, it seems that we’re reading really important, canonical stuff … well, if there IS a “canon” in the sub-field of “women in criminal justice.” To that end, I’ll be posting most of those reviews. These documents are largely summative, but they also include a little nugget of opinion at the end.

Here’s the first one! *******

Maher, L., & Daly, K. (1996). Women in the street-level drug economy: Continuity or change? Criminology, 34(4), 465-491.

  1. Main Thesis: Contrary to the suggestions made by some recent work in the field, the expansion of the drug economy that arose with the increased prevalence of crack cocaine in the late 1980s and early 1990s did not increase economic opportunities for women. Instead, the widespread use of crack cocaine resulted in a larger pool of sex workers, which then limited earning opportunities for women drug users who had relied on the sex trade for income. Thus, the rise of crack cocaine actually contributed to the increased economic marginalization of women associated with the drug trade in this context.
  2. Body of Evidence: An ethnographic study was undertaken in Bushwick, a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn with a busy street-level drug market. The fieldwork began in the fall of 1989 and extended through the end of 1991. Fieldwork included observations and interviews. A total of 211 interviews, ranging from 20 minutes to 3 hours, with women crack users were recorded. In early 1992, data was sorted and 45 women identified about whom substantial information had been collected to report findings on. These women included 20 Latinas, 16 African-Americans, and 9 European-Americans ranging in age from 19 to 41 years. The authors examined women’s roles in the structure of New York City crack markets, selling and distributing drugs, selling drug paraphernalia, running shooting galleries, and copping drugs. Researchers found that women were a majority population only in the category of copping drugs; they were excluded from selling paraphernalia and drugs on more than an irregular basis, and they were intimidated out of running shooting galleries. In these examinations, special attention was paid to the importance of the potential for violence, relationships, protection, and performed attitude among these women.
  3. Conclusions: This ethnographic study shows some weaknesses and contradictions in current research. Chances for income in the Bushwick-area crack market during the time of this study arose based on who had particular traits, but perceptions of those traits were (and, likely, are) grounded in cultural perceptions that operated along gendered lines. The economic marginalization of women in this limited economy runs counter to assertions about empowering opportunities for women in such situations. Current research also often fails to take into account racial-ethnic considerations. The authors conclude that studies of women’s positions in drug economies have much more work to do in terms of taking into account gendered realities, race-ethnicity, sex, and sexuality.
  4. My Conclusions: I found Maher and Daly’s work to be careful, informative, and innovative—this last adjective despite the fact that it’s more than a decade old. They do an excellent job of explaining a prevailing narrative—that of increasing female emancipation in the drug trade—in criminology research and then respectfully complicating it. My concerns with this article largely involve bigger-picture items. For example, I was surprised at the lack of discussion surrounding the seemingly ethically questionable practice of paying drug addicts for their stories (but perhaps this is a commonplace in criminology research that I’m unaware of). I also wished that Maher and Daly had drawn more explicit connections to broader concerns in feminist criminology; that is, how can this study change our scholarship and practice in relation to how women are treated in the criminal justice system?

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