Woman & Justice

By Janine S White: Culture Editor

With men taking up ninety-five percent of the prison population within the UK, it is unsurprising that most research into the needs of prisoners is based on white men. Policies and practises which are informed through this research, are therefore guided towards understanding what factors contributed to their incarceration and how to resettle them on release. It is concerning however, that five percent of the prison population is women, yet they appear forgotten about within these policies. It is important that further research is carried out regarding gender in the criminal justice system, to ensure that the needs of all criminals are met in the best way possible, to allow reintegration into society and to break the cycle.

Where do the cycles begin? Sociologists have found that a high percentage of women within the criminal justice system are mothers, without qualifications and a problematic drug history. They have concluded, that women are likely to have long standing health issues which, once imprisoned, require medication. They have issues with sleep, self-harm, and have often, recently attempted suicide. This suggests that women who reach the criminal justice system, do not have the mental capacity to understand their wrongs and may in fact require alternative interventions such as a mental health team.

A handful of scientists speculate that women within the criminal justice system are there on the grounds of living in the wrong area at the wrong time. This is due to gendered beliefs about what is and what is not allowed. These beliefs vary by town, city and country as well as year and who is making decisions. An example of this theory is that in some cities and even some countries like Amsterdam, permission is granted by the council to set up sexualised clubs and women can work in them without difficulty. In other areas, permission is not granted, and it then becomes frowned upon to partake in such activities. In England, it is illegal to charge for sexual services, in Amsterdam it is legal. Where the woman resides, what the local area thinks of the activities, as well as what is expected and acceptable behaviour is at the time, affects whether the woman is arrested, charged and prosecuted.

“A criminal record has severe effects on finding employment..”

Several further theories include trauma and disadvantage as young girls. This is understood to have led to young women having a low self-image of themselves, living in isolation from people who care about them and no adults available who can protect them. This belief is questionable as it is based on an understanding dating back to times unknown, where girls and women were vulnerable beings, believed to need protection from men. It suggests that women are unable to fend for themselves and unable to protect themselves from harm. This leads to the belief that women are not responsible for their crimes but are victims of crimes against them, perpetrated by others or due to unfair socio-economic factors, such as poverty. This does not account for any women who have not been subjected to trauma or mental health issue, leaving a wide array of individuals who could be getting away with crime due to the circumstances of those who have. Therefore, an individual needs basis is required.

The High Court & Court of Appeal, UK.

Returning to socio-economic factors, poverty explains why most women entering the criminal justice system have been charged with low level crimes such as theft. Considering that a high percentage of women are also mothers, suggestion is made, that the woman is trying to care for her family in the only way possible at the time.

Whether it is due to the poverty or the mental health of the individual, many, but certainly not all, women could have been prevented from entering the system if appropriate support was provided to them prior to them committing an offence. Instead of receiving this support one in five women who have committed a crime have been prosecuted.

For crimes such as theft, the sentences are often less than six months and mitigating factors such as motherhood reduces these sentences. Unfortunately, within these six months many things happen which allows the cycle to continue, rather than helping to reintegrate.

A criminal record has severe effects on finding employment, acceptance for housing in less disadvantaged areas, as they are often detained in prisons away from their hometowns, there is a severe breakdown in family relationships, leaving individuals with very little to return home to.

There are of course, people who commit higher profile crimes. It is true that women who have committed murder are most likely to have a victim under five years old, or to have murdered a family member. These women are given longer sentences and changes are made for the family to allow them to continue without the maternal involvement such as long-term fostering, adoption or other. Although it is certainly not true for all, some of these murders have taken place by women who have been trying to work through mental health issues or were victims of domestic violence.

By failing to understand the differences between genders in the criminal justice system women may disengage from both the system and any available support on release. By considering the needs of women it is possible to understand where things have gone wrong, the circumstances leading to the crime and the best route forward. For example, a woman who has been a victim of domestic violence for twenty years and suddenly snaps, leading to the death of her husband, is likely to be one of the found statistics of women who have murdered a family member. Within interviews conducted by male police officers, will the criminal be relaxed enough to talk about the circumstances? Will the criminal be believed if she had stayed quiet for twenty years? Will the judge understand the effects of domestic violence on victims when sentencing? Will the jury see a victim or a criminal?

If a woman who suffered a trauma in her childhood developed a mental illness and murdered a family member or a child due to paranoid schizophrenia, would the jury see a victim of trauma who had lost mental stability? Will the officers see a woman who needed immediate mental health support, or will they see not only a murderer of a child but a woman who has gone against the natural motherhood expectations? Will this woman be on two trials rather than just the one? The one for the murder and another for breaking the law of nature? If a man had committed the same crime, with the same circumstances and history, but without the maternal expectations, would he be punished in the same way, for the same length of time?

Everything in life is decided by labels, expectations and interpretation. Gender stereotyping and interpretation of gendered roles have been found to be influential in many sentencing decisions, with no standardised approach. Sentences come with minimum and maximum sentences but do not decide what the judge interprets from the mitigating factors. Juries are made up with lay people who have little to no understanding of legislation, yet they have the responsibility of interpreting what the crime is and whether it has been committed.

To help with this interpretation, reports have been compiled with recommendations to meet the needs of women. It has been found however, that most recommendations have been either ignored or unmaintained. Countless scientists have called for cross department strategies and a larger investment in mental health services.

With so many demands for a change in the way women are handled within the criminal justice system, it is clear that thorough research needs to be undertaken and recommendations acted upon so that there is a clear and definitive guide to individual needs, within a system that has been set up to arrest, prosecute and detain men, leaving little room for interpretation, individual beliefs and principles.