Taking a downsizing agenda for women forward: The challenges

Helen Mills
Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Previous posts in this series have identified various limitations of the criminal justice system for women in keeping with the Centre’s analysis that:

  • Current responses to criminalised women are seriously flawed and harmful to women.
  • Prioritising the criminal justice system in our response to violence against women has undermined the development of more effective ways to address the harms women face.

I suspect many are likely to agree with the analysis that has informed the Centre’s downsizing agenda: that current criminal justice responses to women aren’t adequate. However, the symbolic significance of criminal justice for taking harm seriously and signifying acts as socially unacceptable may make it difficult for some to conceptualise that our commitment to downsizing criminal justice could mean anything other than rolling back protection for women.

The difficulty of simply beginning to articulate strategies which look beyond criminal justice is well established. Writing nearly 25 years ago, Carol Smart considered feminism had well identified the limits of the legal system for achieving justice for women but that;

'[it] may not be able to articulate alternative accounts because of the real fear that law will snatch back the minimal protection it offers.'

Rejecting criminal justice as the starting point for a conversation about reducing harms for women is destabilising. Particularly for those working within it. But also because criminal justice has been so firmly equated with a robust response to harm and so much criminal justice logic has entered the realm of common sense. In addition the use of criminal justice as a ‘social services of last resort’ has made it difficult to define the problems being addressed. For example, the women currently in prison are among the most discriminated against and traumatised. I do not accept the criminal justice logic that defines these women as the most dangerous to our society.

I offer the following as important considerations in taking forward this challenging work.

1. We must focus on identifying alternatives.

To date the Centre’s work has called into question the use of criminal justice to address a wide range of social issues. However, this does not do enough to respond to concerns about how the harms facing women could better be addressed. This must refocus our work going forward with others.

One of the main concerns I have is that our lack of readymade alternatives will be off putting. Particularly to those involved in ‘front line’ practice supporting women. My concern is that some who share our frustrations about the limitations of criminal justice for women will tune out upon the discovery we aren’t proposing to have the answers (or at least not yet). And that as a result this project will lose out on the benefit of their knowledge, expertise and experience. Or, alternatively, that the conversation we are hoping to start about looking beyond criminal justice will be forestalled by the belief we can’t afford to look beyond what we can do to bring positive change now.

2. What should justice look like for women?

Answering this question requires an open conversation. Drawing on structural analysis of the harms facing women must be part of this process. So must the experiences and voices of women affected by the criminal justice system.

I think doing so will result in our reaching different conclusions about the interventions most relevant to women than those offered within the criminal justice system. This will likely involve a broad platform of alternatives and a range of responses – including those not about prosecution and punishment. It will also mean acceptance from downsizers about what a re-specified criminal justice system would look like. For example, criminal justice is currently the only access to containment women have. For some women this containment (of men) will make them feel / be safer.

3. Working alongside reforming criminal justice.

As we have previously outlined, we are not setting out to make criminal justice work better for women. Not because this work isn’t important or necessary. But our starting point here is different. This sets apart our work going forward from a criminal justice reform agenda.

There will inevitably be tension between efforts to reform and efforts to transform criminal justice. But both interventions are necessary and should find ways to work together.

Notwithstanding the importance of this distinction between reform and our work here, this project is not opposed to the function of law or to collective disapproval in society. Nor to there being a place for sanction and containment in society’s apparatus to protect its citizens. As such there will always be a role for making criminal justice work better for women. I welcome those engaged in this work to reform criminal justice.

Going forward

I don’t underestimate the challenges in thinking beyond criminal justice. Nor the strength of attachment some may feel to the promises of criminal justice – protection, rehabilitation, and justice – whatever we know about its current realities for women.

Taking forward Justice Matters for Women will require a spectrum of interested, engaged, knowledgeable people, committed to addressing deep-seated structural issues. Criticisms, concerns and differences should all be part of this conversation. Those who participate in the March meeting won’t be asked to sign up to a set of alternatives which will deliver better outcomes for women and address the structural inequalities women face. I hope this doesn’t limit our ability to think differently about women and criminal justice and to have the space for a conversation about thinking beyond criminal justice. The end point is not predetermined. We need others to join us to shape this journey. 

Helen Mills is Research Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies

Related items

Is Lady Justice blind or just blinkered? (19 February, 2014)
Addressing violence against women beyond criminal justice (11 February, 2014)
Punishing women and criminal justice failure (5 February, 2014)
Criminal justice and reducing the harms that women face (27 January, 2014)
Is criminal justice a form of violence against women? (25 November, 2013)