Crime and Punishment – a men’s issue

“Among the powers of government is meting out punishment, and writers such as Montesquieu, Cesare Baccaria, and the American founders thought afresh about the government’s license to harm its citizens. Criminal punishment, they argued, is not a mandate to implement cosmic justice but part of an incentive structure that discourages antisocial acts without causing more suffering than it deters. The reason the punishment should fit the crime, for example, is not to balance some mystical scale of justice but to ensure that a wrongdoer stops at a minor crime rather than escalating to a more harmful one. Cruel punishments, whether or not they are in some sense ‘deserved’, are no more effective at deterring harm than moderate but surer punishments, and they desensitize spectators and brutalize the society that implements them.”  – Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now.

Feminist campaigning has seen to it that female convicts are treated with compassion and that rehabilitation and preventing reoffending take precedence, as a general rule, over punishment – but the same humane and rational approach is still dragging behind, over a hundred years since the Enlightenment that Pinker refers to, when it comes to the treatment of male convicts.

Sex discrimination in the U.K. criminal justice system has a long history: e.g. flogging as a punishment for female criminals was banned in 1820 but continued for men until 1967. In The Fraud of Feminism, Ernest Belfort Bax insists that up until the mid-19th Century the sexes were treated more or less equally by the law until Feminism grew in influence and began affecting the outcome of cases, “not articulately, or as the result of definite demands, but as a consequence of sentimental pleading in particular cases. In this way, however, a public opinion became established, finding expression in a sex favouritism in the law, and even more in its administration.”

This practice – of ‘sentimental pleading’ – remains a major tool in the feminist arsenal, with individuals like Julie Bindel and groups like her organisation Justice for Women supporting women who have murdered their romantic partners in appealing sentences. However, with the cultural narrative firmly established (of innocent women and malevolent men), ‘definite demands’ are now being made – such as Women in Prison’s ambition to reduce the women’s prison population by half to 2,020 by 2020 by scrapping plans to build new women’s prisons and diverting the funds to women’s centres for rehabilitation. A goal which you may recognise from the governments’ new approach to dealing with female offenders. Meanwhile, plans for building 2 further new men’s super-prisons remain and the approach to sentencing men is untouched.

England and Wales has the highest rate of incarceration in Western Europe (followed by Scotand). Presently, men account for around 95% of the total prison population despite only committing 3.4 times more crimes than women. In 1900, men accounted for 83% of inmates. According to William Collins, if men were treated as leniently in the criminal justice system as women today, 5/6 men in prison would be free. Factors that explain this disparity include: a greater percentage of convicted men being sentenced to prison, men being given longer sentences on average than women, women being paroled earlier than men (despite being more likely to be disciplined for bad behaviour whilst incarcerated) and women being more likely to have mitigating factors (such as age, dependents, lack of previous relevant convictions and the appearance of genuine remorse) applied to their sentences whereas men are more likely to have aggravating factors (such as presence of previous relevant convictions, the location of the offence, being a member of a group or gang and evidence of some degree of pre-planning or pre-meditation) applied to their sentences.

Women are somewhat less likely to reoffend after being convicted of a crime (18% as opposed to 26% of men) – and I firmly believe that the treatment they receive in the Criminal Justice System, as well as the more sympathetic attitude taken to them by society in general (which is displayed in media coverage of crimes), are critical factors in explaining this disparity. Evidence, which we’ll explore later, suggests strongly that in order to reduce crime rehabilitation and support is more effective than draconian punishment – but when prison populations are viewed holistically, it becomes clear that sensitive treatment is a humane imperative.

Both men’s and women’s prison populations show catalogues of disadvantages and difficulties:

34% of prisoners report living all or most of their childhood with one parent.

24% spent time in care.

29% experienced abuse as a child.

41% observed violence as a child.

7% have a learning disability.

47% have no qualifications.

68% were unemployed during the month before entering custody.

13% have never had a job.

15% were homeless before entering custody.

16% have symptoms indicative of psychosis.

25% have both anxiety and depression.

46% of women and 21% of men have attempted suicide at some point.

22% drank alcohol every day in the month before entering custody.

These issues need attending to and overcrowded prisons (68% of institutions) are ill-equipped to deal with them. We urgently need to reduce the prison population as a whole for safety reasons and to ensure that prisoners can access treatment and resources that can help them turn their lives around.

Treatment within the community is not only cheaper but also more effective:

Cost of a imprisoning an individual for a year: £35,000/community service: £4000

Nearly half of adults sentenced to prison reoffend – the figure raising to 66% for those serving sentences of less than 12 months.

Offenders similar to those serving sentences of less than 12 months who received community sentences have a reconviction rate 7 percentage points lower.

Regardless of the length of sentence:

Meaningful access to family can reduce reoffending by 39% – but, in our overcrowded prison system, prisoners are often shipped to the far ends of the country to fill free spaces and for men in particular critically important access like visits and phone calls can be restricted as punishment.

Receiving treatment for drug and alcohol addictions can reduce reoffending by 33%.

Support from the Prisoners’ Education Trust for educational courses or learning materials reduces reoffending by a quarter.

Employment can reduce reoffending rates by 7.5 percentage points.

Switchback which provides young offenders with “support at the gate” records their trainees being five times less likely to find themselves returning to custody.

Many MRAs seem reluctant to take this matter up. I think there’s two reasons: one, people don’t want to alienate allies who may be more ‘conservative’ on the matter and two, people are afraid of tainting the movement by defending the indefensible. But many prisoners are highly vulnerable men and boys who deserve support – and if they get it we will reduce reoffending and the overall crime rate. What is missing from the criminal justice system is a sex-blind holistic approach that takes into account the traumas that so many male prisoners have suffered, their aims (97% of prisoners report that want to stop offending) and what sentencing and support is likely to aid them in leaving crime behind and becoming law abiding members of a civilised society. What is missing from the cultural conversation is a similar gender-blind sensitivity to root causes of crime, a belief in the ability of ex-convicts to reform their characters and fair access to employment after having served a sentence. It’s time to plug the gaps.

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