Figures released Tuesday by Statistics Canada's Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS) showed the number of women jailed for serious violations jumped by more than one-third last year compared to 1991, but the Elizabeth Fry Society in Vancouver says those numbers have to be considered against the bigger picture.
For example, Shawn Bayes, the group's executive director, noted that a shift in police enforcement over the years means officers are more likely to charge women than in the past in cases of domestic disputes where both parties claim they were assaulted.
The CCJS report said that "while the rate of adult males charged has been declining over the past 20 years, the rate of adult females has generally been increasing," and the rate for females charged with violent crime has risen 34 per cent.
"The context can be misleading, that you think that it's a huge increase when it says 34 per cent," Bayes said.
While the percentage jump may seem huge, she said the numbers indicate only about 100 more women were being charged every year, and that's across the entire country.
Most assaults committed by prostitutes
Men still commit far more crimes. Of the 413,800 adults charged last year, 79 per cent were males, according to the CCJS.
Bayes said most of the assaults and robberies committed by women took place while they were working as prostitutes.
"So we have women in very dire circumstances who, of course, we can't be surprised are going to be involved in situations that will lead them into conflict with the criminal justice system, and situations that place them at greater risk of being charged with a violent offence," she said.
Tammy Landau, a criminologist at Ryerson University in Toronto, agreed that new enforcement patterns are likely driving up the numbers of females in jail cells.
"There are a lot more drug charges, recently now against women," Landau said. "That's because they're sort of targeting women at the airport for being drug mules, and things like that, so there's a lot more emphasis on enforcement against women."
Leaving gender aside, the overall trend in Canada's crime rate is optimistic, with police services steadily reporting fewer serious and violent crimes over the years.
Landau said that decline should lead people to ask the federal government why it's moving ahead with tougher sentencing laws that would put more people behind bars — men and women — in the years ahead.