Recently, Justice Secretary David Gauke MP announced community services supporting vulnerable women have been awarded £1.6 million funding as part of the government’s commitment to reduce the number of women entering the criminal justice system. Further, the government has committed to investing £5 million over two years in community provision for women in the justice system & those at risk of offending and an initial allocation saw £3.3 million awarded to 12 organisations providing a range of specialist support. The funding follows the publication of the government’s Female Offender Strategy in June last year. As it stands, no such strategy exists for male offenders save for the announcement further prisons are to be built.
The current UK prison population is not a diverse mix of men and women; for every 1 woman in prison there are approximately 22 men and this has been the case for over the past decade. Do men commit 22 times as many offences than women? Is our offending behaviour 22 times as bad as that of women’s?
As an analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) shows, men are not committing 22x as many offences, nor are men’s offences 22x as bad as women’s. In fact, men are arrested, prosecuted & sentenced around 3-4x more often as women despite the fact that the offending behaviours of men and women are largely the same.
So, why are so many more men in prison and why are government strategies being employed to lower the female prison population but not the male? Well, it’s to do with gamma bias, the cognitive distortion that impacts our perception of gender.
In terms of crime, when if a criminal is male the fact of their gender typically is magnified, and if a criminal is a women the fact of their gender typically is minimised. Conversely, when a person is a victim of crime this pattern is typically reversed. In short, men are typically seen as perpetrators and women as victims.
This template receives support from research by Dr Tania Reynolds, discussed on the podcast Heterodoxy. Using vignettes of shapes ‘harming’ each other, Dr Reynolds found “participants more often assume that the harmed target was female but especially when we used the terms ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’… Moreover, what we also found is that when people assumed the harmed target was a woman, they responded more positively towards her… So they were forced to choose male or female and we found that on average, people assume a female victim. So about 76 percent of the time. But this likelihood was even stronger when we used the terms ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’.” People automatically assume a victim to be female and, when they do, will be much more supportive of her – this does not happen for men. Instead, they are perceived as the cause of the harm because, according to the template, men are the perpetrators.
This template of men as perpetrators and women as victims manifests quite noticeably in the criminal justice system, as found by Dr Samantha Jeffries in her 2002 paper. She notes, of female offenders, they “challenge appropriate ideas of “femininity” through their criminality and involvement in the criminal justice system, both of which are traditionally the domain of men. Thus, when confronted with criminal women, it was found that the justice system tended to see them as either “not women” or “not criminals”. Women were constructed within dominant ideals of femininity in relation to the family and mental illness, and this provided a way to reposition offending women as “real” women and not really criminal after all.” When female offenders are passing through the criminal justice system, those processing them cannot reconcile the gender of the offender with their criminality, thus minimize their perception of the perpetration. Women cannot be perpetrators and perpetrators cannot be women. Instead, they are victims because they have to be.
For men, however, Dr Jeffries found there is another story, that of maximizing perpetration. She writes “[A]n analysis of judicial discourses surrounding male offenders revealed discussions bound by dominant masculine assumptions which usually made punitive sanctions more, rather than less, likely. Dominant judicial discourses of masculinity were focussed on badness, disruption, and criminality. There was no need to reconcile men within dominant gender ideology because criminality is consistent with “manliness”. Thus, judicial sympathy was rarely extended to men because most were seen as a threat to the social order and in need of state-controlled regulation.” The very nature of men being men means they must be criminal, the aspect of their gender is maximized and they are, inherently, perpetrators.
This psychological template is why government policy is to treat women as victims (thus, not criminals) whereas men are discarded and treated as criminals (thus, not victims). Various guidelines (The Female Offender Strategy, Corston Report, President of the Supreme Court Baroness Brenda Hale OBE’s influential 2005 Longford Trust Lecture and the Equal Treatment Bench Book) all say that female offenders’ life histories must be considered when they are passing through the criminal justice system. Have they endured abuse? Do they suffer from adverse mental health? Ultimately, are they victims? This line of enquiry is not extended to men. By considering the negative aspects of their life histories, female offenders are awarded softer sentences and treatments to support & accommodate them. The template of women as victims and men as perpetrators is applied, leading to a massive sex discrepancy in the prison population.
This template is why, at every step of the way, men are treated far more harshly than women in the criminal justice system. The idea of perceiving women as criminals or men as victims is alien to those whose jobs it is to administer justice. They work with a sex-discriminating template which places men & women onto different paths through the criminal justice system, causing this massive sex discrepancy.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine the Criminal Justice System did treat men and women the same. Let’s fantasise, just for a moment, that male life histories and extraneous variables were considered by the Justice System as they are for women. They could start with the fact men and women process mental distress differently, ergo, will behave differently in times of mental distress.
Men and women typically process distress differently. Men are more likely to externalise their feelings, become aggressive, abuse substances and become prone to suicide; women show classic signs of anxiety or depression. No surprise then that distressed men are more likely to be dealt with by the prison services, where any therapy is likely to be directed towards the need for behavioural change rather than emotional distress. In these conditions, men might be less inclined to seek help if they fear that their anger might be interpreted as a sign of criminality.
Because male psychology is so poorly understood and misrepresented, men can find themselves falling through the criminal justice system when, in fact all they require is therapeutic attention. Thus, I find myself asking some serious questions. How many men are in prison when they should have been given help for adverse mental health? I do not know. How many men have suffered adverse mental health (or, mental distress) and have acted out, only to be sent to prison? How many men have suffered mental distress (lost their children because of the family courts, lost their jobs, are feeling suicidal) and, in acts of desperation & loss of control, find themselves involved with the Police and Justice System and are imprisoned because they are seen as a ‘bad man’ when, really, they just need help?
But how many men in the Criminal Justice System should be receiving psychological help instead of punishment? At the Male Psychology Conference 2017, Dr Naomi Murphy from the Fens Offender Personality Disorder Pathway Service at HMP Whitemoor spoke of her work with offenders in her care. She found:
• 66.1% reported childhood sexual abuse
• 72.6% reported childhood physical abuse
• 80.6% reported childhood neglect
• 66.1% reported childhood emotional abuse
• 59.7% reported parental antipathy
• 43.5% reported parental domestic violence
• 54% of the men who were sexually abused were victimized by a woman
Thus around 65% of the men she worked with had suffered some form of childhood abuse which, if it had been caught sooner by the system, could have resulted in these men being directed away from incarceration and towards the help they need.
It’s not just emotional trauma but, physical as well which can set a man on a dark path. A review in Lancet Psychiatry suggests that bumps to the head from accidents, road traffic collisions, assaults/violence, etc – things guys suffer from more than women – can lead to neural injuries which affect how the brain operates, and may increase the risk of violent offending. The authors show that of people in the criminal justice system, around 20% have had a moderate to serious Traumatic Brain Injury and another 30-40% had something less serious. Thus at least half of the prison population (around 40,000 inmates) have suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury. When we compare this to the 0.5% of TBI in the general public, we see a vast discrepancy.
Speaking of the effects of identifying these injuries early, lead author Professor Huw Williams of the University of Exeter said “[A]ddressing traumatic brain injury offers a means to not only improve the lives of those who offend, but also to reduce crime. A range of measures could reduce the risk of crime following traumatic brain injury. These could include any form of neurorehabilitation, and better links between emergency departments, community mental health services, GPs and school systems that might lead to early identification and management.” Imagine that: if their head injuries had been properly addressed both by the Criminal Justice System and the Health System, up to and beyond 40,000 men today could potentially not be in prison.
These are not numbers to be trifling with. Around 65% of men seen by Dr Murphy suffered some form of childhood abuse which, if extrapolated to the whole prison population, is over 50,000 people and an estimated 40,000 have suffered some form of Traumatic Brain Injury.
How many men would not be in prison today if these factors were considered? How many men could instead be receiving the help they need and be healing their injuries (both physical and psychological) rather than being behind bars? How many lives could truly be turned around if male life histories were considered rather than dismissed?
Remember, because of the psychological template applied: at conviction, women are more likely to be awarded a community sentence, they are more likely to be awarded a suspended sentence, yet men are far more likely to be subject to immediate custody – and, their sentences will be longer. Also, mitigating factors will be more accepted for women than men and aggravating factors will be accepted more for men than women, despite them being present. Think how much better the system would work if all the measures which have been introduced for women were also made available for men.
This serves the interests of not only the men in the Criminal Justice System but society at large as the cost per year per prisoner in England and Wales in 2016/17 was £22,933. Let’s say the prison population was halved because these men were correctly redirected to therapeutic measures rather than punitive, such a reduction in prison population could save the Criminal Justice System an estimated £917,320,000 every year in prison costs alone. Yet, because of the template of ‘perpetrators are men and victims are women’, this prospect seems far off in the horizon.
The prognosis, however, is not all doom-and-gloom. For example, as a preventative measure, the charity JourneymanUK helps troubled young boys & men pass through a rites-of-passage, teaching them how to be good men who will contribute positively to society. They provide therapeutic measures to help craft them into healthy men and fathers of the future. The charity A Band of Brothers works with young men & boys in the criminal justice system, providing for them guidance and support as they transition into manhood. Both of these charities recognize men & boys have their own methods of emoting and behaving which requires care and attention, not scorn and contempt. If only the Criminal Justice System could see this too.
About the author
Jordan Holbrook is an Honorary Research Assistant with the Male Psychology Network. His key area of interest in the sex-of-target empathy gap, how it evolved, why it did so and how it manifests in today’s society. He is also interested in sex differences and male mental health.