Punishment Sex Ratio in England and Wales Since 1750

face of a prisoner

punishment sex ratio in England and Wales from 1780 to 2010

From 1750 to 1920, the ratio of men to women absent in punishment in England and Wales changed relatively little despite major societal changes . During this period, England and Wales underwent industrial revolutions, unprecedented population growth, and extensive development of state institutions. Both the prevalence of persons absent in punishment and their punishment positions changed significantly across this period. Nonetheless, with the exception of a brief peak after the American Revolutionary War, the ratio of men to women absent in punishment remained between five to ten men per woman from 1750 to 1920.

From 1780, sex ratios of prisoners show a similar pattern to sex ratios of persons absent in punishment. Absence in punishment accounts for persons punished by execution or transportation, in addition to persons in prison. Accounting for executions and transportation is potentially important because those were predominant forms of punishment in England and Wales prior to 1855. However, like the sex ratio of persons absent in punishment, the sex ratio of persons in prison was typically between five to ten men per woman from 1780 to 1920. Ratios of men to women in prison earlier, particularly in the seventeenth century, were much higher as a result of mass imprisonment of men for debt.

Increased professionalism in the administration of justice coincided with a relatively small nineteenth-century reduction in gender inequality in punishment. In 1835, the British national government appointed national prison inspectors covering local prisons and required those prison inspectors to issue yearly reports. The Prison Act of 1877 nationalized all local prisons in England and Wales. The nineteenth-century growth in Britain’s national penal bureaucracy helps to explain the mid-nineteenth-century shift in punishment from predominately transportation to almost exclusively imprisonment.^

The development in penal bureaucracy probably also contributed to a reduction in gender inequality in punishment. The ratio of men to women absent in punishment fell from about 9 from 1825 to 1845 to about 6 from 1860 to 1910. By giving more weight to procedure and routine, the growth of government bureaucracies probably reduced sex-biased discretion in administering justice. In addition, national penal bureaucracy lessened the personal connections between the administrators of justice and persons disposed in punishment. From the perspective of the professionalizing civil servants administering justice, working-class men and women moving into the growing cities were united more by class and divided less by sex. In the U.S. in the early nineteenth century, the ratio of black men to black women in prison was usually significantly lower than the ratio of white men to white women in prison. In mid-nineteenth-century England and Wales, social class may have had a similar effect on sex ratios in punishment.

A much larger, long-term increase in the ratio of men to women absent in punishment is readily apparent in England and Wales from 1920 to 1970. Absence in punishment in the 1920s almost exclusively meant persons in prison. About 1920, the ratio of men to women in prison was about 7. That’s about the same sex ratio among prisoners as existed among prisoners in England and Wales in 1780. From 1920 to 1970, the prisoner sex ratio rose from 7 to nearly 40 men in prison per woman in prison. The only interruption in this rise was the customary alternative disposal of men in military service during World War II.

The large, long-term rise in men in prison per woman in prison in Britain coincided with a major expansion of democratic deliberation. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave voting rights to five million men and nine million women, all previously without the right to vote. That act thus raised the enfranchised share of persons in Britain ages 21 and over from 28% to 76%. The Representation of the People Act of 1928 enfranchised an additional five million women.^ After the Act of 1928, all British subjects ages 21 and over who resided in Britain and met minimal property requirements had the right to vote. Overall, voting rights expanded from 28% of persons ages 21 and over in 1910 to 97% of those persons in 1929.

The expansion of the franchise in Britain occurred along with vigorous political debate and contention. From 1918 through the 1920s, the British people demobilized from total war and participated in intense union activity, including a General Strike in 1926. The Russian Revolution of 1917 intensified arguments over socialism and communism. A new national political party, the Labour Party, rose to control the British government in the 1920s. The Labour Party has had enduring political importance. Extensive new programs of print dissemination and the development of radio and film also intensified public debate.

The ratio of men to women in prison in England and Wales declined sharply from 1970 to 2003, but then increased from 2003 to 2010. A society-wide movement for gender equality may have contributed to reducing the ratio of men to women in prison from 39 to 15 from 1970 to 2003. The suicides of six female prisoners in the English prison at Styal between August, 2002 and August, 2003 prompted high-level political concern about women prisoners. Since then, the prisoner sex ratio has risen from 15.5 men in prison per woman in prison in 2003 to 19.0 in 2010. Both those figures are much higher than the maximum and median ratio of men to women in prison from 1780 to 1920: 8.0 men per woman maximum and 6.1 men per women median across 140 years of criminal justice history. Even with the decrease in gender inequality in punishment from 1970 to 2003, the pattern of punishment by sex is currently extraordinarily unequal.

Recent high-level reports have focused making the criminal justice system better serve women. The Corston Report, published in 2007, was a Home-Office commissioned “review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system.” The reviewer, Baroness Corston, declared:

My first recommendation concerns the treatment of men and women within the criminal justice system. From April 2007 the government will have a statutory duty to take positive action to eliminate gender discrimination and promote equality under the Equality Act. I have seen little evidence that much preparatory work is in hand in respect of the imminent statutory duty or of any real understanding that treating men and women the same results in inequality of outcome.

Inequality in outcomes from government action (imprisonment) that directly affects fundamental life capabilities (personal physical liberty) should be a priority concern in pursuing gender equality.

International development leaders seek to promote equal human capabilities.^ Concern for human capabilities suggests priority for reforming the criminal justice system to promote equal outcomes in imprisoning men and women. If that’s considered an unrealistic ideal of real gender equality, gender equality efforts might aim to reduce gender inequality in punishment to less gender inequality than existed from 1780 to 1920. A reasonable start would be to reduce anti-men gender bias in criminal sentencing.

Yet when the issue is imprisonment, equality doesn’t mean equality. Baroness Corston forthrightly declared:

Women and men are different. Equal treatment of men and women does not result in equal outcomes.

That’s never been a prominent consideration in comparing aggregate labor-market earnings by sex. But at the punishing end of public policy, women and men are regarded as essentially different. With seventeen men in prison per woman in prison in England and Wales, Baroness Corston proposed a separate and even more unequal criminal justice system. She proposed treating women “holistically and individually” so as to free up prison spaces for imprisoning men:

I have, however, concluded that it is timely to bring about a radical change in the way we treat women throughout the whole of the criminal justice system and this must include not just those who offend but also those at risk of offending. This will require a radical new approach, treating women both holistically and individually – a woman-centred approach. …

Equality does not mean treating everyone the same. The new gender equality duty means that men and women should be treated with equivalent respect, according to need. Equality must embrace not just fairness but also inclusivity. This will result in some different services and policies for men and women. …

An additional 8,000 places {in prison) for men are planned and a reported £1.5 billion is being sought to fund them. Unless the current sentencing trend can be reversed, more must follow. A much smaller level of funding would provide an opportunity for government to do something innovative for women. I do not pretend that my proposals will free up hundreds of prison places overnight. It will take time and determination and persistence but I do believe that, if my package of recommendations is implemented, over time the women’s prison population will decrease.^

Gender equality here becomes the abstract social construction of treating men and women “with equivalent respect, according to need.” It apparently implies imprisoning more men and imprisoning fewer women. Increasing the ratio of men to women in prison is also the implied direction of other major reports since 2003 on women offenders in England and Wales. Such policy is consistent with the increasing ratio of men to women in prison since 2003. Apart from power and persuasiveness in public discourse, such policy isn’t consistent with any reasonable understanding of gender equality and justified gender-equality priorities.

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