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Women In The Criminal Justice System

25 Nov

Interested in the representation of women and men in the criminal justice system, whether as victims, offenders or practitioners? The Ministry of Justice has published the latest edition of  its biannual report on “Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System”.

The main focus is on the year 2011, but  data is also considered for the previous 5 years where possible. The Ministry publishes the report as a requirement of  Section 95 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which imposes a duty on the government of the day to publish statistical information to assess whether discrimination exists in the criminal justice system:

“The Secretary of State shall in each year publish such information as he considers expedient for the purpose… of facilitating the performance of those engaged in the administration of justice to avoid discriminating against any persons on the ground of race or sex or any other improper ground.” (Section 95)

The figures should be considered in the context of the most recent mid-year population estimates for 2011 quoted in the report, which show that of the total of 49,509,747 population of England and Wales who are aged over 10 years, women comprised 51% of the population, while men accounted for 49%.

It may not come as a surprise that the figures confirm that there are significantly fewer women than men both subject to supervision in the community and also locked up in prison. More women, too, serve shorter sentences than men.

Some of the key findings in the report are summarised below.

Women as victims of crime

There were differences evident in the level and types of victimisation between women and men. According to the 2011/12 Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) – previously known as the British Crime Survey – 3 in every 100 adults were a victim of violent crime that year. A smaller proportion of women than men interviewed reported being victims of violence (2% women and 4% men).

Women who reported being a victim of violence were most likely to be  victimised by someone with whom they were already acquainted. For men, it was more common to be on the receiving end of violence perpetrated by a stranger.

A greater percentage of women (some 7%) interviewed for the CSEW reported being victims of intimate violence (partner or family non-physical abuse, threats, force, sexual assault or stalking) than men (at 5%).

Prevalence of intimate violence in the last year among adults aged 16 to 59, 2011/12 CESW

Fewer women (201) than men (435) were murdered in 2010/11. With regard to murder, a greater percentage of female victims than male victims knew the principal suspect (78% of women victims of murder as opposed to 57%of male victims of murder).

Overall Arrests by Offence Group and Gender

Percentage of overall arrests by offence group and gender, 2006/07-2010/11 (Source: Ministry of Justice (2012), ‘Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2011’)

Sentencing

Theft and handling stolen goods (which includes shoplifting) was the most common indictable offence group for which both women and men were sentenced at all courts between 2007 and 2011 (this applied over half of all women sentenced (52%) but only a third of all men sentenced (33%) for indictable offences in 2011).

Overall, a higher percentage of men(10%) than women(3%) were sentenced to immediate custody in 2011. Women also were more likely than men to be fined (77% of women as opposed to 61% of men).

Men also received longer sentences. The average custodial sentence length for all indictable offences was consistently higher for men than women. This applied throughout the period 2007-2011. In 2011 in particular, the average custodial sentence length for indictable offences was 17.7 months for men  compared to 11.6 months for women.

Average Custodial Sentence Length in months by offence group (indictable offences), 2007-2011 Source: ‘Women in the Criminal Justice System 2011’

The only indictable offence group for which females consistently received a higher average custodial sentence length than males between 2007 and 2011 was criminal damage (in 2011, 25.8 months for women as opposed to 18.2 months for men).

The percentage of both women and men sentenced to an immediate custodial sentence rises with the number of previous cautions or convictions. In 2011, 39% of men and 29% of women with 15 or more cautions or convictions were sentenced to immediate imprisonment.

A greater percentage of women in custody who had received an immediate custodial sentence were serving shorter sentences (12 months or less): 21% of women as opposed to 10% of men in 2011. For women serving prison sentences of 6 months or less,  accounted for 15% as opposed to 7% for men.

Women Subject To Supervision In The Community

In 2011, there were fewer women than men under supervision in the community. A total of 19,018 women and 106,916 men were subject to supervision as a result of a community order or Suspended Sentence Order (these are the two most common types of community sentence). Women comprised 15% of those under supervision in the community as a result of community and Suspended Sentence Orders.

The average length of community and Suspended Sentence Orders was shorter for women in 2011. In addition, women who started such supervision were commonly subject to fewer requirements to comply with than their male counterparts. In terms of order length, 14% of women supervised under a community order were supervised for less than one year. For their male counterparts, the corresponding figure was 7%.

Both women and men supervised on community orders and Suspended Sentence Orders in 2011 had different age profiles. A greater percentage of women commencing community orders (55%) and Suspended Sentence Orders (58%) were aged 30+years when compared with their male counterparts (48% for both community orders and Suspended Sentence Orders).

In 2011, a greater percentage of women completed both community orders (70% for women as opposed to 65% for men). This also applied to Suspended Sentence Orders.

Women In prison

On November 23, 2012, there were 4,174 women in prison in England and Wales. The number of women prisoners increased during the decade ending in 2010 by around 27%. On 30 June 2011, women represented 5% of the total prison population of 85,374 inmates. According to the Prison Reform Trust, over half (51%) of women leaving prison are reconvicted within one year. For those serving shorter sentences (less than 12 months) this rises to 62%.

Population in prison establishments under immediate custodial sentence by gender, as at 30 June 2007–2011 Source: ‘Women in the Criminal Justice System 2011’

In 2011, there were 24,648 incidents of self-harm in prisons. The rate for female self-harm in prison continues to register more than 10 times higher than the rate for men.

In addition, women who self-harmed in 2011 did so more often than men (an average of 7.1 incidents compared to 2.8 incidents for each individual self- harming), though incidents of male self harm were more likely to result in hospitalisation.

There are 630 women prisoners in England and Wales who are foreign nationals. They represent approximately 15% of the women’s prison population. On 30 June 2011, a larger percentage of foreign national women prisoners were incarcerated for drugs offences (39%) and fraud and forgery (14%) than British national women (18% and 3% respectively).

British national women prisoners wee more often incarcerated for offences of violence against the person (29%) or robbery (10%) than foreign national women prisoners (for whom the respective figures are 13% and 3%).

Of the the total of  329 self-inflicted deaths in prison in England and Wales between 2007 and 2011, the vast majority (95%) were men and five per cent (or 15) involved women). This, however, mirrors the gender representation in the prison population.

In 2011, women prisoners were more likely to be subject to the disciplinary process than men. The rate of offences punished in prison establishments was higher for females (130 offences were punished per 100 female prisoners)than for males (with 106 offences punished per 100 male prisoners.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the government qualifies the report by noting that:

“The identification of differences should not be equated with discrimination as there are many reasons why apparent disparities may exist.”

References:

MINISTRY OF JUSTICE (2012), Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2011 London: Ministry of Justice.

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Community Sentences: A Problem With Perception?

18 Mar

“For too long community sentences have been seen as, and indeed have been, a soft option. This government wants to change this and make them a proper and robust punishment.” – The Prime Minister, March 2012

English: David Cameron's picture on the 10 Dow...

Prime Minister David Cameron

The government has announced more details of their plans to ‘toughen up’ community sentencing options. The ‘virtual prison’, as this blog has observed, trumps the ‘rehabilitation revolution’. New measures are now imminent, and may be formally announced in the Queen’s speech in May. They are reported to include:

  • Hi-tech electronic ankle tags (so-called “sobriety bracelets”) that can confirm whether the wearer has been drinking alcohol by measuring the wearer’s air and perspiration.
  • Electronic tags using GPS satellite technology which will monitor the exact geographical location of offenders using electronic tags, 24 hours a day.

These moves reflect an increased emphasis on punishment, with American style surveillance & control to the fore and rehabilitation being de-prioritised. The Prime Minister explicitly stated that community sentences lack ‘toughness’.

Probation could arguably do more to ensure that its public and political image accurately reflects the high quality and effectiveness of its intervention. Probation minister Crispin Blunt delineated the problem with his observation in February 2012:

“There is an issue around public confidence in community sentences. The public may feel that a person has got away with it with a community sentence.”

This, the minister argued, was not primarily about the reality of community sentences, but rather about how they are perceived. He qualified his comments by stating that:

“Community sentences can be extremely intensive and very demanding”.

While Blunt focused on the perception of community sentences, Prime Minister David Cameron concluded that community sentencing’s image was not just a product of perception, but also a reflection of reality:

“For too long community sentences have been seen as, and indeed have been, a soft option. This government wants to change this and make them a proper and robust punishment. Criminals given a community punishment should not just be able to enjoy life as it was before [doing] their sentence.”

This government strategy is not new. It was presaged by a 2010 report by the Policy Exchange (reputedly David Cameron’s favourite thinktank), which portrayed community sentences as the “weak link in the sentencing chain”. According to the report:

“… community sentences fail because they are fundamentally flawed, poorly administered and confused in their purpose. To be made better, community sentences first need to be refocused back to their core function of punishment and then radically reformed to improve compliance and administration.”

Top civil servant Louise Casey argued in the foreword to this report that it was “imperative” that community sentences were radically overhauled. She wrote:

“Central to this is the need to ensure that one of the foremost tenets of sentencing is no longer ignored in community sentences – and that is punishment. How on earth can we expect victims of crime and the public at large to back such reforms if they, rightly, have little confidence that community sentences actually punish wrongdoers?”

Casey even went so far as to suggest that some probation staff “see punishment at best as an optional extra and at worst as a dirty word”.

Society’s need for credible and effective community sentences has never been greater. Today, we have 87,870 people in prison in England and Wales. We imprison proportionately more of our citizens than any other country in Western Europe. The probation service supervised a total of 232,862 people on 30 September, 2011 – over two and a half times as many people as we imprison.

Community sentences are widely used by the Courts in England and Wales. In the year ending September 2011, no fewer than 178,763 people (or 13.6% of all those sentenced) were given a Community Sentence.

Thirteen in every hundred people sentenced at magistrates’ courts during this year were given a community sentences. Eighteen in every hundred people sentenced at Crown Court were also given a community sentence.

The fiscal case for community sentencing is strong. The average annual cost of imprisoning one inmate, according to Hansard,  is approximately £45,000 per annum. We can supervise up to 15 people on probation for a year for same cost. Probation’s domestic violence courses, for example, cost under £6,300 but help achieve a reduction in reoffending of up to one third.

A successful community sentencing policy, therefore, will not just safeguard society by significantly reducing reoffending. It will save taxpayers a huge amount of money.

The evidence suggests that community sentences are effective in reducing reoffending, particularly when compared to shorter prison sentences. Providing factual, accurate information about such sentences helps build greater public confidence in our justice system.

A well-informed public is less likely to automatically assume that community sentences lack toughness, or that community disposals are, in effect, a ‘let off’ for defendants. This public view of probation was confirmed by my own 2002 analysis of how public perceptions of community sentencing were constructed during one particular high profile example involving the footballer Jonathan Woodgate.

When Woodgate received a community penalty, the press (broadsheets included) were unanimous in equating the sentence to “walking free from court”, “escaping a prison sentence”, “avoiding prison”, receiving a “paltry” sentence, and so on. The exhaustive press coverage left the public in blissful ignorance of what community sentencing actually involved, other than the offender being freed.

Presumably, headlines such as “Committed probation staff deliver evidence-based intervention to reduce offending and safeguard the public” would were not thought to be sufficiently circulation boosting.

Probation is a key statutory justice agency but despite the scale of its endeavour, its impact on public awareness is limited. The average person in the street is mainly unaware of the scale of its essential contribution to public protection and rehabilitation.

This is not a new problem. I remember Beverley Hughes, then probation Minister in Tony Blair’s Labour administration, delivering her keynote address in 2001 to the new National Probation Service in London. I recorded her words for a piece which was published in the Probation Journal:

‘Public credibility is crucial to our success. Only if, together, we can convince communities of your role and your reliability will you be able to do your important job effectively’.

This remains true today. Perceptions of probation will only begin to advance when the political and public understanding of probation starts to echo its success in practice.