Punishing women and criminal justice failure

Laurel Townhead and Rebecca Roberts
Wednesday, 5 February 2014

'Taking the most hurt people out of society and punishing them in order to teach them how to live within society is, at best, futile. Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her.'

This powerful observation by former prisoner and founder of Women in Prison, Chris Tchaikovsky, sums up what campaign organisations, government reports and academic studies consistently tell us about women caught up in the criminal justice system. As famously documented by Baroness Corston, women captured by criminal justice usually have personal histories of trauma, poverty and crisis. Alongside this we know that criminal justice agencies, with their primary purpose of punishment, offer limited opportunities for support and treatment, so often associated with ‘rehabilitation’ and helping women to move forward with their lives. Criminal justice frequently does more harm than good.


Risky or at risk?

In 2011, almost 300,000 women were sentenced by the courts. Most of these sentences were fines (77%) with the remainder including community sentences, discharges, suspended sentences and custody. On 3rd February 2013 there were 3,786 women in prison. Why were they there?

Data collated by the Prison Reform Trust in 2013 shows that the vast majority of women entering prison under sentence have committed non-violent offences. Most are received on sentences of six months or under. The most common offence is shoplifting (eight times more women are sentenced for this than for the next most common, which is benefit dishonesty). A significant proportion are detained for breach of a court order.  

A history of harm

As the opening quote says, women’s experience of punishment is not limited to criminal justice sanctions. Punishment is a common thread in women’s lives before they come into contact with criminal justice. Over half of the women in prison report emotional, physical or sexual abuse as child and over half report having experienced domestic violence. Although, as any women’s organisation will tell you, underreporting means that these figures are likely to be underestimates. 

Repeating cycles of powerlessness and punishment

There is significant need amongst women in the criminal justice system, as detailed by a recent article in the New Statesman. Criminal justice responses reinforce women’s experiences of powerlessness and subjugation, causing further harm. The rate of self harm by women in prison custody is 10 times higher than the rate for men (2,104 incidents per 1,000 women compared to 194 incidents per 1,000 male prisoners). Women are subject to more punishment once they are in prison with higher rates of disciplinary proceedings against them than men, leading the Ministry of Justice to conclude that 'women may be less able (due for example to mental health issues) to conform to prison rules'. Just under half of women in prison have attempted suicide at some point in their life.

Voiceless victims?

These are striking facts. We must also be wary of an approach that strips women of their identities and reduces them to a few (shocking) statistics. Doing so might help focus attention briefly on women in criminal justice but it does not reverse the harm or address its root causes. Seeing women through the lens of victimhood reinforces ideas of needing to do something to them to help them, enabling the idea of prison or other criminal justice responses ‘for their own good’. Women need opportunities and resources to change their own lives. 

Limiting criminal justice

It is important to reflect on the systemic and societal inequalities that women face and the failure to effectively recognise and respond to need prior to contact with criminal justice. This underpins how and why Women in Prison works with women in criminal justice and why, Women in Prison and the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies are jointly undertaking Justice Matters for Women

This does not mean we should abandon women currently caught up in the system or ignore the harms some women have caused – quite the opposite. However, given what we know, we feel there is strong evidence in favour of reconsidering the role of criminal justice as a primary mechanism for responding to and resolving harm for women whether they are ‘victims’ or have broken the law – or, as indeed it seems is often the case – are both. We are keen to collaborate with others to challenge the role of criminal justice in women’s lives and seek out and build on existing practical alternatives.

Laurel Townhead is Policy and Campaigns Manager at Women in Prison. Rebecca Roberts is Senior Policy Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

Related items

Is criminal justice a form of violence against women? (25 November, 2013)
Criminal justice and reducing the harms women face - opening Pandora's box (27 January, 2014)
Punishing women and criminal justice failure (6 February, 2014)
Addressing violence against women beyond criminal justice (11 Feb, 2014)

Visit the Justice Matters for Women project page for other articles in this series and to register for our workshop event on 26 March 2014.