Women in the Criminal Justice System

‘Women’s clothes cut off in New Hall jail ‘unacceptable’

“Prison inspectors have criticised the “unnecessary and unacceptable” practice of cutting off women’s clothes when they are strip-searched.

Responses to women whose behaviour caused concern were also “excessively punitive”, said a report on New Hall Prison in Wakefield, West Yorkshire.”

Why is this happening?

Why are our democratically elected governments not acting responsibly and effectively on society’s behalf to eliminate bad practice and reduce re-offending in the female population?

As part of my training to become Probation Officer (Offender Manager), I completed a degree in Community Justice.  My dissertation was on sentencing for women. It was clear that women’s pathways to offending were very different to those of men, via domestic abuse, poverty, leading to drug and alcohol misuse and mental health problems, benefit fraud, driving offences and ending up in custody mainly for repeat offending. 80% of women sentenced to custody in the year up to June 2011 had committed a non- violent offence , only 3.2% of women in prison are assessed as high or very high risk of harm to others (Women in Prison Report ‘Corston +5’ ). While men also receive custodial sentences for prolific and persistent offending, often involving drugs and alcohol misuse, their types of offences often present a greater threat to the public, for example they include violent behaviour.

I also discovered that women being sentenced in Court could often become subject to double effects, being ‘judged’ for not being ‘good’ women’ as well as not being law abiding citizens. Prejudice against feminist ideals/equality could also influence sentencing. Women who conformed to the ‘good mother’ stereotype, for example could receive a more lenient sentence, but if judged to be a ‘bad’ mother, a harsher sentence could be imposed. Much research over the last decade has drawn the conclusion that female offenders are in fact treated differently to male offenders in the Courts.

We also know that punishing/hurting people does not persuade them to make sustainable change in their lives for themselves or for the greater good, yet  ‘punishment’ remains at the top of the list for sentencing criteria.

While women offenders are treated differently in Courts in respect of types of sentencing, the conditions of those sentences, the actual punishments and rehabilitative interventions they must undergo, are designed on the basis of male values and beliefs and from evidence from work done with male offenders. According to research, we know that many of  these  interventions, for example group cognitive behavioural programmes in both the community and custody and punishment strategies such as unpaid work and detention have limited effects on reducing re-offending for both men and women. In addition, women’s criminogenic factors (those that influence her re-offending potential) are highly complex, are enmeshed in family matters and are not addressed by the limited range of programmes designed for men that are available to the Courts.

So, if the Courts treat women differently because they are women, why are programmes and interventions not designed to work for women?

In my experience working with men, women and children in and out of the CJS ,  it is only when people really want to change things in their lives do they commit to doing so. I am of the view that women are generally more disposed to want to take responsibility for their own personal development than men and that therefore our investment in that personal capacity should take presidence over any requirement to punish or uphold a failing criminal justice system, at huge personal and public expense.

5 years ago Baroness Corston,  chair of The Fawcett Society, made extensive investigation into women in the criminal justice system and published the Corston Report. At that time the following coalition.: The Fawcett Society and Action for Prisoners’ Families, Asha Centre, Calderdale Centre, Clean Break, Creative and Supportive Trust, Greater London Domestic Violence Project, The Griffins Society, Hibiscus, Howard League for Penal Reform, INQUEST, Nacro, Prison Reform Trust, SmartJustice, Women in Prison and Women’s Aid.-

made a response, part of which said:

“Today’s report is a comprehensive blueprint for creating a system that will meet the needs of women offenders and their families and reduce re-offending.

“Work by the Fawcett Society has shown that the current criminal justice system is designed primarily to meet the needs of men and that women who offend have specific needs which are not being met. Nearly two-thirds of women in prison have a drug problem, the majority have experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse and at least 70% have mental health problems. Most women in prison have children and more than 17,000 children a year are separated from their mothers by imprisonment.

“We need wholesale reform of the criminal justice system to make it responsive to the needs of women and their families. The Fawcett Society welcomes the publication of the Corston Report and urges the Government to act now on its recommendations.”

The coalition believes the following measures will reduce crime and benefit women, their families, and wider society:

  1. The Government must recognise that for most women who offend, prison does not work; it is inappropriate, unnecessary, and damaging.
  2. Women offenders and those at risk of offending need local community-based services, close to their families and networked into local services.
  3. To reduce crime and improve women’s lives it is crucial to address women’s complex needs, including poverty and debt, mental health problems, abuse and domestic violence, addictions, and housing.

The public is ready for change – a recent poll by ICM for SmartJustice showed that 86% of the public support community alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders and two thirds believe that prison is unlikely to reduce reoffending.

NOW, 5 years on from the publication of this report, Women in Prison’s review ‘Corston +5’  identifies that only 7 out of over 40 recommendations made in the Corston report are being/have been implemented!!!!

Only about 5% of the total current prison population is female. Could governments’ persistent failure to attend to women’s offending really be due to it’s being perceived as insignificant in respect of the overall prison population? As with double effects in Courts, are women offenders (their children and families, the wider public, other agencies and tax payers), paying the price for neglect and discrimination by policy makers?

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