Yesterday prison reform charity the Howard League revealed that three out of four prisons are currently overcrowded and some are packed to more than twice their intended capacity. Combined with savage cuts to prison service budgets and staffing, this is driving a humanitarian crisis in British jails. Suicides rose by 64% last year. Serious assaults rose by 30%, assaults on staff by 15%. Sexual assaults are rising rapidly.
Meanwhile my old sparring partner Mike Buchanan of Justice for Men and Boys has been doing the rounds, including on national TV show The Big Question, with an intriguing statistic. He claims that if male offenders were sentenced with the same standards of severity / leniency as female offenders, around 68,000 male prisoners (five out of every six) would not be in prison at all. With this one egalitarian step, the male prison population would fall from 81,000 to just 13,000.
It is an extraordinary, breathtaking claim. Sadly, as with most extraordinary, breathtaking claims, it is abject nonsense.
The source is a blogpost by William Collins, here. Collins argues that men are approximately two to three times as likely to be imprisoned for any given category of offence, that the custodial sentences they are given for the same offences are much longer, and that once sentenced they are likely to serve more time before being released on license or parole. He calculates that these effects are strong enough that between them they account for 84% of the male prisoner population.
On the face of it, Collins’s figures are correct. He does fall for a few statistical fallacies which I won’t bore you with, however much more importantly he fails to account for three enormously important factors that make the rest of the exercise entirely pointless.
The first point he misses is that the single biggest influence on whether a defendant is sent to prison (and for how long) is not their gender, or even the category of their offence, but their offending history. Someone with 15 or more previous convictions is nearly five times as likely to receive a custodial sentence as someone with no previous convictions. Of all people processed in the justice system, women constitute 27% of first offenders, but only 14% of repeat offenders. In other words, while men represent about 73% of offenders in the criminal justice system, 86% of people processed for repeat offences are male. [Source table]. I don’t have statistics on this, but I would suggest it is at least likely that amongst the most chronic recidivists, an even higher proportion is male.
The second huge problem with Collins’s analysis is that he doesn’t allow for the fact that men and women tend to be prosecuted for different types of crime. Around one in six of the male prison population (around 11,000, excluding remand prisoners ) is serving a sentence for a sexual offence. Among woman, the figure is less than one in 50. [Prison Population Statistics, Oct-Dec 2014] Why? Because there are 56 men prosecuted for sexual offences for every one woman. Meanwhile sexual offences are the category where convicted offenders are more likely to be imprisoned than any other, with around 60% of convicted offenders (whether male or female, incidentally, there is no major difference here) receiving immediate custodial sentences. A good illustration of how far awry Collins calculations have taken him is that without any prima facie evidence of biased sentencing in sexual offences, those 11,000 sexual offenders would still be there if male sexual offenders were sentenced identically to female sexual offenders. And yet he estimates that only 13,000 men should be in prison in total.
Finally, and perhaps most critically for the analysis, Collins assumes that men and women committing the same category of offence are committing the same type of offence. This is an enormous, and entirely unsupported assumption. Violence against the person includes everything from minor assaults to mass murder. Theft could mean shoplifting a jar of babyfood or an enormous gold bullion heist. Fraud could be a failure to declare to the Job Centre a few quid earned for babysitting or it could be a billion pound financial scam. Knowing what we do about different patterns of offending by gender, it is utterly nonsensical to assume that the types of offences typically being committed by men and women within the categories are comparable. We simply do not have the data to compare.
After all that, we can only conclude that the claim that 68,000 male prisoners should not / need not be inside has all the solid foundations of a unicorn fart. Mike Buchanan and any other MRAs who latch on to it should stop embarrassing themselves (and seriously misleading their audiences) by quoting it.
Does this mean there is no gender bias in judicial sentencing? Absolutely not. The sentencing guidelines themselves make this clear. Magistrates and judges are advised that mothers should, where possible, be spared prison to avert unnecessary harm to their children, even if the children’s father is living at home with the family. No such leniency is allowed for men, despite extensive evidence of the harm caused to children by imprisoning fathers.
The only British research into sentencing prejudices and biases that I am aware of was this Home Office paper, which conducted qualitative research with magistrates. The subjects were quite frank that they were more inclined to look sympathetically upon a female defendant and show her mercy, for reasons that include straightforward benevolent sexism.
Prison, for both men and women, is an expensive, ineffective and inhumane anachronism in a civilised society. Pretty much every inmate detained is a testament to multiple failures in social policy, social care, education, welfare, mental health and addiction services. There are innumerable strong arguments for reform of sentencing and penal policies. Just about the worst one is that it represents some kind of unfair gender discrimination.
UPDATE: William Collins replied to this post and I respond here