William Collins has published a response to my last blogpost, in which I criticised the conclusions he had drawn from analysis of sentencing statistics, and specifically his calculation that if men were sentenced to the same standards as women, there would be 68,000 fewer men in prison. I’ll make a few factual and statistical points below, but first let me express a regret, and issue an apology.
With hindsight, there was a scornful tone to my last blog. What I did not make clear enough was that my scorn is not for William Collins. I’m very pleased that any bloggers are addressing the issue of male incarceration, including gender discrimination in the system. While I maintain that William’s calculations are seriously shaky at best, at the risk of sounding patronising, I appreciate how complex such efforts are and we all get this stuff wrong from time to time, self very much included. Had this just been an exchange between William and I, my tone would have been much more like “Hi William, this is a great effort, but I think you’ve failed to account for . . .”
My scornful tone wasn’t aimed at William Collins, it was strictly aimed at Mike Buchanan, a man who spends most of his life ostentatiously issuing challenges and demanding corrections and apologies from other people whom he believes may have used statistics wrongly, but who then appears on national TV quoting “facts” which he believes for no other reason than he read it on a single amateur blogpost on the internet, so it must be true. Worse, he includes the same statistics in a general election manifesto, no less.
Now that is out of the way, let me see if I can clear up a few of the remaining points of dispute.
First, on a matter of (slightly tedious but significant) detail, let me specifically address an issue about repeat offenders. William writes:
I believe that Mr Fogg’s claim that only 14% of repeat offenders are women relates to data on being cautioned or convicted combined, since I can find that percentage in Ref.2 Table A.01 and also in the “1 in 7″ figure on page 51, both of which relate to this combined category. However, what we are interested in is, for people who are sentenced (i.e., convicted), what are the relevant proportions of repeat offending and how does this influence the likelihood of imprisonment?
Ref.2 page 53 indicates that the large majority of both sexes who were sentenced for an indictable offence in 2013 were repeat offenders, namely 86% of women and 91% of men. Moreover, whilst male offenders sentenced for an indictable offence were more likely to have 15 or more previous sanctions, the difference between men and women in this respect is slight: 37% of men and 30% of women. So Mr Fogg’s claim that chronic recidivists are overwhelmingly men is not true.
Not quite. Chronic repeat offenders are often imprisoned for summary offences as well as indictable crimes. (see here for a recent outrageous example). Someone committing an offence which might warrant a reprimand or caution on first offence might be imprisoned for the same crime on the 15th offence. So to know what proportion of all offenders are recidivists, we have to look at this table here. It shows that 76% of male offenders but only 62.6% of female offenders were repeats. Since there are more than three times as many male offenders, that scales up. Of those committing further offences, 510,974 were male and 83,308 were female. So there were 594,282 repeat offenders in total and 86% of those were male.
Beyond that point, I quite agree with William that many of the statistics he quotes are not contentious, as he says:
the issue, though, is whether this disparity between the genders is just, i.e., whether there are good reasons for men receiving harsher sentences, or whether it is simply gender bias.
Much of William’s response reiterates calculations that have been based upon the assumption that if a certain proportion of men and women have been convicted for one category of crime, such as violence against the person, it is reasonable to presume that they are committing different types and severities of violence against the person at the same rates.
It is true that I have implicitly assumed that, on average, offences committed by the two sexes within a given category are equally serious. It is also true that I have offered no support for this. The assumption is made simply on the basis that, in the absence of contrary evidence, this is a reasonable working assumption. Mr Fogg is right that many crime categories cover an enormous range of seriousness. But, as I say in the original post, why should men’s offences for, say, “theft from a vehicle”, or “false accounting” or “fraud” or “causing death by reckless driving”, etc., be any more heinous than women’s on average? In the absence of specific data, the assumption of equity on this matter is reasonable.
This is really the key point of dispute. We do actually have some, albeit limited evidence for different offending patterns. If we take the most serious crimes, which garner the highest proportion of custodial sentences and longest terms, we do have some statistics. Every year 90% of homicides are committed by men [source]. 98% of (reported) sexual offences are committed by men. [As an aside, on sexual offenders in prison, there are around 11,000 convicted male sex offenders out of around 68,000 convicted prisoners – ie not including remand prisoners – so it is roughly one in six, not one in ten as William suggests].
There is certainly a received wisdom among criminologists around the world that (with the exception of infanticide) the more serious the offence, the more disproportionately it is perpetrated by men. Even from our own experience, if we ask ourselves for example, how often we have heard or read news reports about a petrol station being held up by two masked men with hammers or shotguns, and compare that to how often we hear of police looking for women in such cases?
Of course, expert received wisdom is not infallible and our own perceptions can be skewed, but the onus in such cases is, I think, to prove the received wisdom and our perceptions wrong, not just ignore them.
William agrees that this is
“an issue on which…..We simply do not have the data. …..and hence cannot be critically examined.”
Exactly. Exactly, exactly, exactly.
“This does not necessarily mean that it is untrue.”
Well, we know that men are vastly more likely than women to be convicted of homicide, and to be convicted of sexual offences. We know that men are much more likely to be repeat offenders. We know that women are much more likely to be living with dependent children. So we know that, at best, the analysis is ignoring some utterly critical data which are likely to significantly skew the end results, even before we get into the realms of the unknown factors. So, to be cautious, we do know that it is not entirely true.
There are limits to what an amateur blogger with access only to publicly available information can do in a few days of effort. To do justice to the topic would require a PhD level of investigation, and access to far more detailed data. The true indictment of our society is that no one seems to have done it.”
I wholeheartedly agree. My issue, as I said at the top, is not that William Collins had a stab at analysing these statistics and (to be frank) came a little bit of a cropper. My issue is that a prominent activist has picked up on the work of “an amateur blogger” with access to limited data and repeatedly broadcast it as fact to the nation.
William concludes his response like this:
the likes of the Corston Report promulgate the view that only women are deserving of such compassion – when it is so very obvious that it is specifically men who need it more.
I would say “need it too” not “need it more”, but otherwise I wholeheartedly agree. I have made that precise point many times on this blog and more prominently elsewhere, including here and here. It feels like there is only a tiny handful of us willing to take on this point, to make the case that male prisoners are a specific category also deserving concern and attention. In making any case for social justice it is important that we argue on the basis of facts, not hyperbole and misinformation.