In the Media

Justice system a 'sexist operation', study finds

PUBLISHED May 13, 2009

The criminal justice system is ­condemned as an institutionally sexist operation that lets down female victims, fails to help women offenders out of a cycle of crime and prevents professionals reaching the top jobs.

A five-year investigation by the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality, found that discrimination against women pervades the system in England and Wales at all levels, from the police forces where women officers are still forced to wear men's uniforms to the way frontline staff doubt the credibility of victims reporting rape and domestic ­violence, with a gap seen between equality policy and its implementation.

The society's commission on women and the criminal justice system, whose members include high court judges and Cressida Dick, one of the most senior women in British policing, warned that since it last reported in 2004 there has been a lack of consistent progress in ­promoting women into senior positions, and victims and offenders continued to be marginalised in a system designed for men.

It raised concerns over the number of women given short prison sentences for non-violent crime, including the non-payment of fines and television licences, and the effect it had on their children as well as its failure to address the causes of their offending.

In 2007, 63% of women sent to jail were given sentences of six months or less. Last month the female prison population stood at 4,309, compared with 2,672 in mid-1997. Ministry of Justice projections show that at best it may decrease by 200 by 2015, and at worst will increase to 5,100.

Self-harm among women in custody, which Fawcett said was a product of the effects of being in a system designed for men, increased by 48% between 2003 and 2007, with women committing around half of all self-harm incidents, despite representing only 5% of the total prison population. At the women-only HMP Styal the number of incidents of self-harm have risen from 376 to 1,324 in the last five years, according to figures obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform

Getting more women into senior jobs would help improve the system for those using or going through it, the commission said. But last year women constituted only 12% of police officers at chief inspector grade and above, and less than a quarter of prison governors. Only 16% of partners in the UK's 10 biggest law firms were women in 2008 and there were only 42 female compared with 479 male QCs. The number of female applicants for the judiciary and Queen's Counsel remained "worryingly low".

Female professionals reported difficulties with the system with many respondents in the police seeing the culture of long working hours as an "implicit requirement for promotion".

Sharon Smee, Fawcett's justice policy officer said: "Women need justice and justice needs women. A greater representation of women, particularly in high level positions is crucial to make the criminal justice system responsive to women's reality. There is no excuse."

Last night justice minister Maria Eagle said: "While we recognise the challenges we face we reject the central tenet of this report. ... We have long recognised the specific needs of women in the criminal justice system... But there is still more to be done and the government equality bill contains positive action measures."