Much has been said recently, by the media, by campaigners, and by the Prime Minister, about how far too many women are locked up, sometimes with babies in prison with them too. In truth, I agree. There are indeed far too many women locked up, especially for minor offences. I also agree that it is heart wrenching to think of a baby in prison, no matter what the circumstances. However, this all comes down to choices, and I’d like to lay out a few.
We live in a society where most agree that the sexes should be treated equally. However, reality is still catching up to this change in social mores, with women generally receiving less pay than their male colleagues and with men being entitled to less paid time off for paternity leave than women are for maternity leave. The proposition that we should offer women who commit minor offences specific protection from custodial sentences is in direct opposition to the principle of gender equality.
There are some frequently quoted statistics which aim to set out why women should be treated differently. The majority of female prisoners are serving less than six months in prison, have not committed a violent crime, often only minor crimes, and sometimes simply to support someone else. In cases where the crime has indeed been committed to support someone else, that person is often a man. Meanwhile, women who are imprisoned often lose custody of their children resulting in them being placed into care, as well as homes and jobs. Many female prisoners have been in care themselves, are under-educated, and have suffered either physical or sexual abuse. These are all things which the compassionate would find it hard to argue against mitigating sentencing in the face of. However, these are also all things which can be said of some male prisoners too. In fact, I personally know men who grew up in care, where they were both physically and sexually abused, have committed minor, non-violent crimes to support their wives and children, came to prison with no real education, and lost their home, their job, and their family in the process. And yet, when we say that of a man, as much as we might recognise how hard that must be, somehow it doesn’t feel quite so tragic as when it is said of a woman.
The choice then is threefold. We could leave things as they are, and accept that too many women are locked up, often with babies inside too and older children taken into care. Alternatively, we could adopt the proposal of offering specific protection to women who commit minor offences, ignoring those men who are in exactly the same boat. Or, as I hope we do, we could actually look deeper. Instead of offering specific protection to women, why not stipulate that sentencing must take account of the severity of the crime, the rehabilitative effectiveness of the length of possible custodial sentence, the circumstances of the case (including whether or not the offence was committed to support someone else), the long term impact of the sentence and whether it might result in loss of employment, accommodation, or custody, and any unstable and traumatic history such as growing up in care or suffering abuse. All of this could be taken into account by the judge without ever having to consider the gender of the offender. Yes, it is female offenders who it will benefit more, since a higher proportion of them fall into each of those groups than their male counterparts. But at least it would be done equally so that, where a male offender who has similar circumstances pops up, he too is helped to break the cycle.
Once we’ve done that, there is just one more choice to be made. Do we really want mother and baby units in prisons? I’m split on this one. As I said before, it is heart wrenching to think of a baby in prison. But it is just as heart wrenching to think of a baby being taken away from a mother (or indeed father) who love it and want to care for it. If we truly cannot stand the thought of a baby behind bars then perhaps the solution would be to train foster parents to facilitate contact between children and their parents who are serving short sentences in prison. On the other hand, if the thought of splitting parents and children up is even worse, then isn’t it time we saw father and baby units made available to those men who are serving short sentences and would otherwise have full custody of their children? I am not against the idea of offering women protection from custodial sentences, but I do think that there is no reason that the same protection should not be afforded to men in the same position.