Gender neutral policies have been a revolving issue in criminal justice around the world. A serious question that has cropped up in all of these debates has been; Do gender neutral policies have gender neutral consequences? Carlene Firmin believes that answer to be a resounding ‘No’. Firmin, a principal policy advisor at the Office of the Children’s Commission for England, writes that jailing women may have more severe consequences than anyone originally planned.
Firmin was just a young women when she first volunteered to visit a women’s prison, and the results from her interviews with inmates left her unsettled to say the least. It seemed that the majority of women Firmin spoke to had lost their homes, and worst of all their children, and nearly all the women stated that upon release their first order of business was to win back both those things that were taken from them. At the time of Firmin’s visit to the prison there was a nation wide call to reduce the amount of women in prison for non violent offenses. However, as of recently, the amount of women in prison has steadily grown according to statistics from the Criminal Justice Alliance. This increase in jailed women doesn’t simply point to a rise in violent crime, women in the U.K. are most likely being incarcerated for theft and handling, and breach of community order. Although organizations such as Prison Reform Trust and Women in Prison have challenged the growing number of women in prison, the use of custody by magistrates remains a serious affair.
It seems that no matter where in the world, when the question about women in prisons is brought up, it is immediately followed by the debate of gender fairness in the criminal justice system. Firmin believes that in this case, gender neutral policies do not have gender neutral consequences. Statistics tell us that every year in the U.K., 18,000 children see their mothers hauled off to prison, and a disproportionate 5% stay in their homes during that sentence. Also, 33% of these women are single mothers, and it is more likely that these children lose their homes or get placed in care. More figures from the Prison Reform Trust tell us that although women only made up about 5% of the prison population in 2009, but they accounted for almost half of those incarcerated for self-harm incidents. These jailed women are much more likely to have mental health problems than the general population.
It is obvious from these statistics that more than just the crimes committed need to analyzed before incarcerating women. Life histories that include domestic abuse, drug/alcohol abuse, and childhood abuse need to be given more consideration, and more support services need to be readily available to keep women from reoffending or offending in the first place. It seems that incarcerating women in the U.K. punishes more than the crimes committed, but punishes children the most. Firmin strongly believes that a more considerate debate needs to address the question about the purpose of prison, and who its use most strongly affects; And I can’t help but agree.