(RE)think piece

Patriarchy on trial: double standards in the criminal justice system

Patriarchy on trial: double standards in the criminal justice system

Charlie Weinberg

The notion that our criminal justice system fails women and girls is becoming more widely accepted, but there is less analysis given to how these failings are rooted in structural oppression and misogyny. In this piece, freelance consultant and writer Charlie Weinberg, previously Director at Safe Ground (2010-22) and Chair of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, discusses the ‘double standards’ for women going through the criminal justice system. Taking a whole-system lens, she argues that if we are to eradicate gender inequality, we should start by looking at the criminal justice system – and that, reciprocally, any criminal justice reform agenda should be concerned with gendered approaches.

I was asked to write a short piece about the single change I’d make in the hope of creating a more effective criminal justice system.

I don’t think there is a single change that can be made to ‘improve’ a deeply rooted, multi-dimensional system. Many years of life, work and relationships have shown me the entire system is designed to produce certain outcomes because it is based on a set of assumptions and intentions that have less to do with justice than we might like to think. Rather, the underlying cultural and social norms that enable the criminal justice system are to do with punishment, class and judgements about human value and worth based on a hierarchy of ‘acceptability; and established expectations.

However, despite this fundamental difference with the premise, I agreed to undertake the task as a challenge to myself. If my analysis is robust, surely, I must be able to identify a single practical way to make a change to the system supposedly designed to achieve justice.

I realise I have written about this issue a lot[1]  over many years and that I’m usually saying the same things. Women and girls are not seen, globally, as whole people with clear minds and desires, agency and capacity; rather we are seen and understood, described and defined as images, fantasies, victims, villains, saints or sinners with very little ‘lived experience’ that is taken seriously or given any credence.

My single change would be that women and girls*[2] are treated as full human beings in the social, cultural, legal and institutional mind.

In criminal justice terms, this usually means that girls and women are judged more harshly than their male counterparts; disbelieved, decried or demeaned for making a complaint (indeed, culturally coerced into ‘caring’, being ‘kind’ and blaming ourselves for any harms, crimes or injustices against us); and that we are less likely to report violent, sexualised or physical crimes because we know the system is more likely to punish than protect us.

There is a cross-cultural assumption that women and girls are primarily caregiving, nurturing and ‘mothering’ individuals whose purpose in life is to serve others. We may like to pretend and protest that this is not true, but the scale and scope of the international sexualised exploitation markets make it difficult to argue against.

Women and girls are routinely subject to double standards and misogyny in policing, sentencing, imprisonment, housing, education, health and throughout the institutions we have contact with from family to church; school to university; employer to hospital or policy-making.

Women and girls are culturally coerced into submission through a series of ideological apparatuses. These include aspirations to marry and have children; to be sexually desirable to men; to be ‘pretty’, ‘cute’, ‘elegant’, ‘beautiful’, ‘slim’, ‘curvy’, ‘confident’, ‘caring’ and ‘independent’ whilst also being vulnerable, kind, nurturing and attentive to others.

In the criminal justice system, these normalised and embedded expectations of women culminate to mean policing often denies women’s reality unless they are ‘worthy’ victims. If a woman is not ‘vulnerable’ enough in the right ways (submissive, passive, ‘good’, polite, compliant and law-abiding, employed, ‘innocent’); she is not entitled to a justice system that can recognise her injuries. Worse, she has brought them on herself. Think of the ways the women murdered by Peter Sutcliffe were described for so many years; the women’s involvement in prostitution was as relevant as their murder.

Women in the criminal justice system are the most likely to be victims of violent crime in a frequency measure, and violence against women rises even when general violence levels decrease, particularly during austerity. Women are least likely to have secure, stable and private home ownership; to have an income or support system they can rely on and/or to have alternative accommodation they can easily access in an emergency. Women are most likely to be primary carers for children or other adults around them; and to be susceptible to sexualised exploitation for fear of escalating violence, homelessness, threat or material need.

Women are punished more harshly for lesser offences; criminalised more quickly and suffer harsher consequences in terms of housing, family support, economic impact, access to and relationships with children, social networks and employment after prison. There are not a large number of men in prison for watching television without a licence and receiving fines that don’t get paid.

Men are treated badly by the criminal justice system and I have written about that too. This is about a single change I would make and it would be for women and girls to exist outside men’s heads and with a mind, room and rights of our own.

[1] Reclaiming justice – a national network of collective action | Centre for Crime and Justice StudiesJustice is a way of being, not a moment in court | Centre for Crime and Justice StudiesPQ23.pdf (squarespace.com)Opinion Asking for it | Morning Star (morningstaronline.co.uk)

[2] When I say women and girls, I mean all of us that may or may not: wear hijab, have experienced genital mutilation, been culturally, socially or economically coerced into sexualised exploitation (prostitution or pornography); have had a mastectomy or a hysterectomy, been pregnant, given birth, had a miscarriage, had abortion(s), been subjected to sexualised violence, abuse or threat, been stalked, harassed or attacked due to our sex, been prohibited or limited in their education or employment, training or practice due to our sex, been disproportionately expected to assume caring, domestic or parental responsibilities, been treated unfairly at work due to maternity leave, given up opportunities for marriage, got married very young under duress, been culturally coerced to eat, dress, socialise or understand ourselves in relation only to our sexual appeal to men and ‘desirability’ and that have experienced direct and concrete impact of oppression and multiple exploitation due to our sex.

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