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Myths about female offenders

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

Women: Treated more harshly in the penal system?

There are some common misconceptions and twisted facts about the sentencing of female criminals and why they go to prison.


According to those who don't want to see women incarcerated, female offenders are:

  • sent to prison for mainly non-violent crimes

  • there has been a rapid increase in the number of women going to prison

  • suffer from mental health issue more than men,

  • subjected to more abuse in life, and

  • do more self-harm

1. Claim: most women go to prison for non-violent crimes

It is fundamentally not true that women are in prison for mainly non-violent crimes.

  • The largest cohort of women in prison on remand by offence group is violence against the person. This is nearly two thirds larger than the next offence group - drug offences.

  • The largest cohort of the female prison population under an immediate custodial sentence by offence group is violence against the person - nearly 300% larger than the next two offence groups of drug offences and theft offences.

  • As a proportion of prison population by sex and offence group, 37% of women are in prison for violence against the person compared to 30% of men.

  • Proven reoffending: Women also lead in the number of reoffences per offender.


2. Claim: Researchers claim that between 2010 - 2015 there was a rapid increase in the percentage of women going to prison - up by 248% and that the number of women who received community sentences have gone down by two thirds.


As if this is something that should now be rectified and so leniency should somehow be justified. It is also not true. The figures from the outcomes by offence 2010 - 2020 show:

  • 2010 - 2015 show a decline in the number of women going to prison by around 11%, except of 2011 where the number was higher by 222 convicted women sent to prison but not by 248% or anywhere near that figure at any point.

  • In fact there was a 20% decrease in women sent to prison in 2019 against 2015 data and nearly 50% decrease in 2020 against 2010 data (although 2020 data must be done with caution due to the lockdowns during the pandemic).

  • community sentences have gone down by not by two thirds between 2010 - 2015 but by 30%, however at the same time the number of fines went up.

In fact the great majority of sentences handed down to women are community sentences, suspended sentences and fines. When an immediate custody is ordered it is usually for a good reason.


The complaints from some campaign groups are that judges don't have detailed pre-sentence or other reports about the female offender, which would make them change their mind thus the outcome of the sentencing are slightly ridiculous. Surely the facts of the crime not the sex of the offender matter. Too much emphasis on individual circumstances or children cannot be just a gender based argument.


3. Claim: women suffer from mental health issue more than men


The issues such as mental health for example, are not unique to women. According to Samaritans, the male suicide rate was 16.0 per 100,000* compared to the female suicide rate of 5.5 per 100,000* (data for England & Wales). The biggest killer of men up to 64


There should never be different sentencing guidelines and outcomes based on whether you're a woman or a man.


For every argument there is a counter argument by those who want you to feel nothing but compassion for these poor women whose circumstances pushed them onto the crime path and it's everyone else's fault. This narrative repeats for young offenders and young adults under 25 years old. We are to believe that deep down they are sweet and innocent and so should not be prosecuted for their crimes but given many new chances if the first few don't work out.


That is not how justice works. There is a crime, there is a victim and there is an offender. The ones never taken into account by the leniency advocacy groups are victims. Even if there is no victim, there is a crime and wrong or damage of some kind.


Further arguments of those defending female criminals are along the lines of their benefits being suspended if they go to prison for three months and that they lose homes as a result of going to prison, as well as the impact of mother's incarceration on children. These are not unique circumstances to women. If a woman doesn't want to lose her 'life' (benefits, or a job, home, kids) she should not commit a crime.


The Sentencing Council has signalled at its recent sentencing seminar that it will consult on the creation of a separate mitigating factor focused on pregnancy in 2023/24. Whilst some campaigners welcome this, Restore Justice disagrees with creating more leniency rules and tables around some groups of criminals, such as young adult offenders and separately women. It does not lead to justice. It is fundamentally unjust and unfair and it will inevitably open up more loopholes that lead to more issues than they solve. In no aspect of life is a dose of more inequality suggested. Yet the same principle does not apply for the criminal justice system.


Why should a pregnancy, being a mother, or simply being a woman be a factor for leniency? Women should not be treated more leniently just because they're women, or mothers or because they get pregnant. The sentencers, particularly the Sentencing Council, must be very careful at setting any rules which would undermine equality and fairness. We know that criminals will only explore the loopholes and exploit the rules for their own advantage if they can get away with lenient sentencing.


The much publicised recent case of a rapist Adam Graham who started identifying as a woman by the name of Isla Bryson in Scotland only after he knew he was charged with raping two women should serve as one strong example to what lengths criminals are willing to go to receive more lenient sentence. His defence counsel even argued that he is a she now and should be acquitted. It should also serve as an example of the perceptions of sentencing of women and female prisons.


Note: Figures from Prison population Sept 2022 (Offender Managements statistics quarterly, MoJ, national statistics); Proven reoffending annual tables, MoJ Jan 2023; Outcomes by Offence 2010 to 2020: Pivot Table Analytical Tool for England and Wales



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