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Is our criminal justice system failing women?

  • Date

    Tue 23 Oct 18

Photo of woman sitting on stairs

Women are still being failed by the British criminal justice system according to a new book, launched this week, and edited by leading academics working in association with our Centre for Criminology.

More than a decade ago Baroness Jean Corston was asked to lead a review of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system after the death of six women in Styal prison. The resulting Corston Report called for a radically different approach, but Women and the Criminal Justice System: Failing Victims and Offenders? suggests the system is still marginalising women on many levels.

The book takes a hard look at crimes such as domestic abuse, neonaticide and the sexual abuse of children and calls for further recognition of the differences in the types of crimes women fall victim to, and the expected social norms that affect how they’re treated as perpetrators.

It is the first book to consider women as both victims and offenders in one volume, and it includes contributions from leading academics and practitioners, including Professor Elizabeth Stanko OBE, Charlotte Triggs OBE and Professor Loraine Gelsthorpe.

Professor Jackie Turton
“It has long been acknowledged that our criminal justice system was originally designed by men, for men and that it is still largely dominated by men. As a result, women get slotted in to a framework that treats them like men, and fails to recognise some key differences and complexities."
Professor Jackie Turton department of sociology

One of the book’s editors, Professor Jackie Turton, from our Department of Sociology said: “It has long been acknowledged that our criminal justice system was originally designed by men, for men and that it is still largely dominated by men. As a result, women get slotted in to a framework that treats them like men, and fails to recognise some key differences and complexities.

“For example, as a victim, when women are attacked it is far more likely to be by someone with whom they are intimately involved, whilst men are more likely to be attacked by someone they don’t know. Crimes against women can go un-noticed, as the #MeToo movement proved. And all too often so-called ‘rape myths’, perpetrated by society’s view of rape, act to move blame back to the victim in the court room, minimising the perpetrator’s offence and downplaying the seriousness of the rape, as Dr Jackie Gray and Dr Miranda Horvath discuss in their chapter.

“In considering women as offenders of two very serious crimes, neonaticide, when a woman is suspected of killing her newborn baby, and the sexual abuse of a child by a woman, we see how these crimes challenge the social narratives around femininity and motherhood.

“In cases of neonaticide we may fail to take into account the vulnerability of the female perpetrator and the complexities surrounding knowing exactly what happened. In the cases of abuse we decide they can’t be ‘real women’ or we deny and minimise their actions. This can affect how we interpret and deal with the crime.

“In short, gender needs to be a specific consideration for all crimes within the criminal justice system, alongside an understanding of wider cultural and social factors such as patriarchal structures and social inequalities, for example, the links between gender, poverty and violence. Society also needs to challenge its values and expectations in order to get the right forms of justice - for women and their victims.”

Professor Turton’s co-editors are Professor Nigel South from our Department of Sociology and Dr Karen Brennan from our School of Law. They are joined by Dr Emma Milne who is now a Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, having completed her PhD in the Department of Sociology at Essex.

The book also features contributions from Essex-based sociologists Aviah Sarah Day, Angela Jenner and Ruth Weir, all of whom are completing their PhDs under Professor Turton’s supervision.

Other contributors include Dr Katrin Hohl, Dr Gemma Birkett, and Jenny Earle from the Prison Reform Trust.

The book was inspired by the papers and discussions that took place at an Essex-led conference in April 2016 at the Royal Statistical Society in London, entitled Women and the Criminal Justice System – Past, Present and Future.

The debate continued at two further conferences: one held in conjunction with the Chartered Institute of Housing, entitled Women, Housing and Domestic Abuse; the second held in conjunction with the British Society of Criminology and City University, entitled Women as Victim-Offenders: Negotiating the Paradox.

The book is published by Palgrave Macmillan and is available now. The launch event will be held on Friday 26 October at Middlesex University.

Ruth Weir and Aviah Sarah Day will also be presenting their research at a forthcoming ESRC Festival of Social Science event, held in partnership with the University of Suffolk. The event Approaches to Reducing Domestic Abuse will bring together professionals and academics to share good practice around dealing with domestic abuse.

Book your place at Approaches to Reducing Domestic Abuse