IWD 2023: Why equity in the criminal justice system is so important

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #EmbracingEquity.

Equality and equity may sound similar; however, they can lead to very different outcomes.

Whilst equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources and opportunities, equity recognises that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.

Chantal Hughes, CEO of Hampton Trust, explains why equity in the criminal justice sector is so important.

We all have a good understanding of what equality means – gender equality, pay equality and equal right movements are terms that have dominated the public debate. But there is probably less understanding of the term equity – how is it different from equality, and why does it matter?

Using equality terminology has the potential to create a smoke screen in the provision of women-centred services, particularly in the criminal justice system. In treating men and women equally, we are failing to address the unique needs of female offenders. In providing an equity-based response, however, we are acknowledging the lived experience of women and adapting services to address these.

How does that relate to the criminal justice system – why is equity important here? Shouldn’t everyone be treated the same under the law?

Equity is important when responding to the needs of women in the criminal justice system. Certain groups face poorer outcomes, and this includes female offenders who often remain subject to generic systems and practices evolved by men in response to men’s offending. Tackling the root cause of female offending requires a gender specific response.

In 2015/16, for example, nationally 26% of female offenders reported having experienced some form of domestic abuse at some point in their adult life, compared with 14% of men. Women were also twice as likely to have experienced non-sexual partner abuse, family abuse and stalking. Women were considerably more likely to have experienced sexual assault or an attempted sexual assault than men, with 20% of women saying they had experienced this since ages 16 compared with only 1 in 25 men (4%). These statistics clearly indicate why we shouldn’t treat women in the criminal justice system the same as their male counterparts, and why we need to adapt services in order to address these additional vulnerabilities.

So gender equity in the criminal justice system means that female offenders are treated differently?

That’s what it should mean but following Baroness Corston’s recommendations in her 2006 report, we are yet to see radical reform across the whole criminal justice system. Progress has been inconsistent with over reliance on what community provision is available or what prison the individual is in. As recently as 2019 a teenager whose baby died during childbirth was left to give birth in a cell on her own. It is estimated that around two thirds of women in prison are mothers with dependent children, with more who are grandmothers or who have older children. There are fewer women’s prisons which means they are often sent further from home than men and have less opportunity for education, work and rehabilitation. Many women are imprisoned for non-violent offences and for short sentences. They are usually the main caregiver and separation from their children for a short time, or sometimes permanently because of a prison sentence, can have a devastating impact. Release from prison brings a range of complex trauma issues and women are not getting the support they need to move forward in their lives.

Hampton Trust is known for its innovative work in the field of domestic abuse. But how does that link to gender equity in the criminal justice sector?

We deliver an intervention called JUNO designed for women who have received a conditional caution. From the first point of contact with the service, JUNO practitioners provide trauma informed support, designed to address complex trauma histories associated with female offending.

Women repeatedly tell us that they expected the JUNO intervention to be a mixed group and that they wouldn’t feel safe if men were there. JUNO Practitioners provide assurance that JUNO is a women only service providing a safe space to reflect on their lived experience. The National Reducing Re-offending Delivery Plan outlines seven pathways to reduce re-offending and following the Corston report, the gender-specific pathways 8 and 9 were added. Pathway 8 acknowledges the special needs of women who have been victims of rape and sexual abuse, and pathway 9 supports women who have been involved in prostitution. Most women referred to JUNO have experienced domestic and sexual abuse and in providing a specific gendered provision to these women we are providing opportunities to receive trauma informed support to address their complex trauma histories

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