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Gender differences in the criminal justice system

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The Corsten Report (2007) on women in the criminal justice system states that ‘equal outcomes require different approaches’. Critically consider this statement with reference to research and practice.

In order to demonstrate that equal outcomes for women do require different approaches within the criminal justice system, this essay intends to look at the behavioural and situational differences between female and male offenders. It will highlight the inadequate facilities available for female prisoners. It will also look at the historical differences between crimes committed by males and females and the growing trend of women involvement in drug offences. This essay will also examine the status of mental health of women within the criminal justice system and explore if this issue is more prevalent amongst female offenders.

‘Women and men are different. Equal treatment of men and women does not result in equal outcomes.’ (Corsten Report, 16: 2007) According to Covington and Bloom (2003) numerous feminist writers have demonstrated and documented the patriarchal nature of our society and the variety of ways in which the patriarchal values serve masculine needs. ‘Despite claims to the contrary, masculinist epistemologies are built upon values that promote masculine needs and desires, making all others invisible’ (Kaschak, 11: 1992).

Women are often invisible in the many angles of the correctional system, and this invisibility can act as a form of oppression. Most prisons and institutions are not specific to women’s needs. For example, mother and baby units are limited within the prison system. The UK government website reports that there are only seven prisons within the UK that provide this service. This service may be detrimental to a mother bonding with her child. Another consequence of limited mother and baby units is that the mother and child will be separated and this may result in the child being placed with a relative, or in some cases the care of the state.

The Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) highlighted inadequate services for women within the prison services in Northern Ireland. Ash House is Northern Ireland’s only female prison and holds up to seventy-one women. This is situated within a predominately male prison.

Covington and Bloom (2003) argue that there are numerous areas in which day-to-day practice in the criminal justice system ignores behavioural and situational differences between females and male offenders. Probation officers may have to consider the situational differences between female and male offenders. For example, recommending a custodial sentence for a pregnant woman may have long term emotional implications for both mother and child.

It is important to note that an understanding of the distinction between sex differences and gender differences, are relevant to practice within the criminal justice system. According to Covington and Bloom (2003) sex differences are biologically determined, however, gender differences are socially constructed. They are assigned by society and they relate to expected social roles.

However, do crimes committed by men differ from crimes committed by women? The Ministry of Justice statistics 2011 state that women are more likely to commit crimes such as shop lifting and theft, while men are more prone to violent crimes. Pat Carlen (1998: 10) notes that women’s imprisonment ‘incorporates and amplifies all the anti-social modes of control that oppress women outside prison’. According to Scraton and Moore (2006) what persists is the failure within the criminal justice system to accept that women’s crimes are different to men’s, committed in different circumstances.

The National Prison Survey (1992) supports the argument that ‘the economic, ideological and political conditions in which most women break the law are different to those in which most men commit crime and that, therefore, they pose less of a threat to society and could be safely punished in the community.’ (National Prison Survey, 1992).

However, some commentators claim that there is an increase in some violent and drug offences committed by women. According to Corsten Report (2007) despite an increase in some violent and drugs offences by women, the nature and seriousness of women’s offending has not, on the whole, been getting worse and the disproportionate increase in the women’s prison population over the last ten years is more likely the result of courts using custody more frequently for women for less serious offences. The Corsten Report (2007) states ‘the majority of female offenders have committed non-violent offences and present little risk to the public’ (Corsten Report, 16: 2007)

In light of the complexities involved regarding women receiving custodial sentences, should the criminal justice system be more lenient towards women? Nicolson and Bibbings (2000) claim that several penal reformers have been less concerned about whether or not gender factors actually do affect a woman’s chances of receiving a custodial penalty, and more concerned to argue that, for a variety of reasons, gender considerations should shape sentencing and that women in particular should not receive prison sentences, unless their crimes meet certain criteria of ‘dangerousness’ and/or ‘seriousness’.

However, Nicolson and bibbing (2000) argue that the central concept implicit in this argument is not gender, but risk, that is, ‘the degree of threat posed by the offender’ (Nicolson and Bibbing, 78: 2000). If risk should be a major criterion for the imposition of a custodial penalty, it is arguable that it is a criterion that should be applicable in the cases of men, as in the cases of women.

Practitioners within the probation service have a duty of care to all members of society. Therefore if a woman poses a risk to society it would be considered appropriate by the probation service to recommend a custodial sentence to prevent risk and protect society.

A main argument put forward in regards to differential treatment for women in the criminal justice system is based on assumptions that there are hierarchies of role worth. ‘Women, as mothers, have especially important roles to play in relation to the upbringing of children and that the damage done to children when their mothers are in prison is, in most cases, far too high a price to pay to achieve an appearance of formal equality of punishment between male and female offenders.’ (Nicolson and Bibbing, 80: 2000)

The Corsten Report (2007) claims that the home and children define many women’s lives. To take this away from them when it may be all that they have causes huge damage to women. ‘Many women still define themselves and are defined by others by their role in the family. It is an important component in our sense of identity and self-esteem. To become a prisoner is to almost become a bad mother.’ (Corsten Report, 20: 2007)

On the other hand, this argument depends on the value assigned to certain social roles. According to Nicolson and Bibbing (2000) it could equally be applied to any categories of worker seen to perform life enhancing work or scarce skills, for example, doctors, nurses, fathers as breadwinners, all carers and various more. Therefore, this argument cannot be allowed to remain gender-specific.

Hollin and Palmer (2006) state that by examining criminal statistics, it is evident that women are less likely than men to commit crime, to be involved with the criminal justice system and to serve a custodial sentence. According to the Ministry of Justice criminal statistics (2011) there were 351,150 court proceedings involving females and 1,139,135 involving males. In regards to custodial sentencing; in 2011, a lower proportion of women in comparison to men, whose pre-sentence report recommended immediate custody went on to receive this sentence (84% of women compared to 90% of men). This research indicates that statistically, men are more likely to commit crime.

The Corsten Report (2007) further analysed risk within women’s role in the criminal justice system and claim that many women involved in the system present a far greater risk to themselves. They have been recognised as more ‘troubled’ than ‘troublesome’. ‘Many have a history of being subjected to serious sexual or other violent abuse. Many are themselves ‘victims’ in whose favour the government is committed to rebalance the criminal justice system’ (Corsten Report, 17: 2007).

The argument highlighted by the Corsten Report (2007) is that many women in prison have suffered sexual and domestic abuse, therefore, the state should spend more time seeking out and punishing the crimes of sexual and violence that are routinely committed against women, rather than punishing those women whose criminal lifestyles have often been prompted by their past experience with their criminal tormentors, who still remain unpunished for their crimes.

This could have implications for social work practice. Therefore, past experiences should always been taken into consideration when making recommendations within a probation report. Sexual and domestic abuse may feature to a higher degree in the case of female offenders. This should be highlighted and taken into account when making recommendations.

None the less, not all victims of sexual crimes are female and we also need to consider young people of all genders. Nicolson and Bibbing (2000) argue that recent research indicates that high proportions of young people who end up homeless, in state care or penal custody have had serious crimes committed against them by adults, who will never be brought to trial. The same research suggests that ‘these adult depredations often occasion their young victims’ first steps into criminal trouble’ (Nicolson and Bibbing, 79: 2000).

Nicolson and Bibbing (2000) argue that recent research indicates that high proportions of young people who end up homeless, in state care or penal custody have had serious crimes committed against them by adults, who will never be brought to trial. The same research suggests that ‘these adult depredations often occasion their young victims’ first steps into criminal trouble’ (Nicolson and Bibbing, 79: 2000).

Nicolson and Bibbing (2000) conclude that although this imbalance of punishment between the old and the young people does not excuse the crimes of young people who were criminally abused in childhood by their elders, it does call into question the state’s right to punish them as if they were solely to blame for their actions. Therefore, the argument highlighted by the Corsten Report (20007) should not only apply to women who have had criminal offences committed against them in childhood but also men who have been similarly abused as children.

As stated previously, there has been an increase of drug related crimes among women. Drug addiction plays a huge part in all offending and this seems to be disproportionately the case with women. ‘Around seventy per cent of women coming into custody require clinical detoxification compared with fifty per cent of men. Women often have more complex poly substance misuse.’ (Corsten Report, 2007: 19)

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and rimes (2008) a large number of female prisoners worldwide are in need of treatment for substance addiction, though only a minority have access to treatment. McIvor (2004) argues that drug use amongst the most common features of women in custody in many countries. In the USA, ‘a national survey showed that women in prison used more drugs and used them more frequently than male prisoners. (McIvor, 2004: 143)

It is arguable that women withdrawing from drugs and alcohol can be impulsive, volatile and unpredictable, leading to higher risk of self-injury. According to Moller et al (2007) the rate of both self-harm and self-inflicted deaths is substantially higher in prisons than in the community, with women being fourteen times more likely than men to injure themselves while in prison.

The Corsten Report (2007) supports Moller et al (2007) highlighting that in 2005, notwithstanding the small number of women in prison compared with men, fifty-six percent of all recorded incidents of self-harm occurred in the female estate. In the first nine months of 2006 self-harm incidents in the female estate accounted for fifty-one per cent of all incidents. Women are also more prone to self-harm repeatedly. Moller et al’s (2007) argument, backed up by the Corsten Report (2007) brings to light that self-harm in prison is a huge problem and more prevalent among women prisoners.

In 2005, over half of all inmates, in the USA, in state or federal prisons and jails met criteria for classification with a mental health problem. According to Mallach and McIvor (2013) the prison population in England and Wales contains a high prevalence of mental health problems, with one study suggesting that over ninety per cent of prisoners have one or more psychiatric disorders.

The Corsten Report (2007) argues that mental health problems are far more prevalent among women in prison than in the male prison population or in the general population. ‘Up to eighty per cent of women in prison have diagnosable mental health problems.’ (Corsten Report, 19: 2007) Mallach and McIvor (2013) further reinforce this argument by claiming that female prisoners are considered to be more likely to experience mental health problems and to have more complex levels of mental health need.

The above research may have implications for social work practice within the criminal justice system and it is important that mental health is taken into consideration when making recommendations and adequate resources for women with mental health issues should be available within the prison system if they pose a risk to society.

In conclusion, this essay has demonstrated that if society wants equal outcomes for female offenders then it may require different approaches within the criminal justice system. The behavioural and situational differences dictate different approaches are required. This is exemplified in the case of pregnant women who require specific needs and special consideration, as this can have implications for society as a whole. On the other hand, the judicial protection of women could be seen as an ideological front for patriarchy, in that traditional roles are reinforced within society.

Historical research indicates that women’s offences differ from men’s. None the less, there is a growing trend for women to be involved with drug offences. The Carsten Report (2007) has highlighted that mental health problems are far more prevalent among women in prison than in the male prison population. This may be due to the fact that many women in prison have suffered sexual and domestic abuse. This highlights that women are still oppressed within society and that the criminal justice system has failed to recognise this issue. The prison system is also more geared to the needs of male offenders and offers inadequate resources to female offenders.

  • Corston Report. (2007) A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the

Criminal justice system. London: Crown Publication.

  • Covington, S and Bloom, B. (2003) Gendered Justice: Women in the Criminal Justice System. USA: Carolina Academic Press.
  • Hollin, C and Palmer, E. (2006) Criminogenic need and women offenders: A critique of the literature. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 11, pp179-195.
  • Malloch, M and McIvor, G. (2013) Women, Punishment and Social Justice: Human Rights and Penal Practices. London: Routledge.
  • McIvor, G. (2004) Women Who Offend. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  • Møller, L. Gatherer, A. Jürgens, R. Stöver, H. Nikogosian, H. (2007) Health in Prisons: A WHO Guide to the Essentials in Prison Health. WHO Regional Office Europe.
  • Nicolson, D and Bibbings, L. (2000) Feminist Perspectives on Criminal Law. Cavendish.
  • Scratan, P and Moore, L. (2006) Degardation, Harm and Survival in Women’s Prison. Social Policy and Society, 5, pp 67-78.
  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2008) Handbook for Prison Managers and Policymakers on Women and Imprisonment. United Nations Publications.
  • Warner, J. (2012) Women and Crime. ABC-CLIO
  • Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland: Report on an announced inspection of Ash House, Hydebank Wood Women’s Prison. 18 - 22 February 2013
  • Ministry of Justice. (2011) Statistics of Women and the Criminal Justice System.
  • https://www.gov.uk/life-in-prison/pregnancy-and-childcare-in-prison - Accessed 18/12/2013 20:36

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