Why more women are going to prison

A female crime wave? No, just more people jailed for not having enough money, says Nick Cohen
BEFORE her death in 1988, the great and good Baroness Wootton summed up a lifetime of experience on juvenile benches, royal commissions on the penal system and committees on the misuse of drugs. "If men behaved like women," she proclaimed, "the courts would be idle and the prisons empty."

It was not just the formidable Baroness who thought that way. The few women in prison were often seen as mentally ill rather than as criminally deviant in the way that men were - hence the plans, announced in 1968, to rebuild Holloway women's prison as a secure psychiatric hospital. In 1970, the Home Office predicted that "as the end of the century draws nearer penological progress will result in fewer or no women at all being given prison sentences".

Yet the women's prison system is close to breaking point. If three more women are jailed this week all the cells will be full.

A leaked e-mail message from prison service area managers reveals that every conceivable way of dealing with this, without having to put prisoners in police stations, is being considered. They include turning single cells into double cells, using television rooms and other communal spaces as emergency dormitories, putting healthy women prisoners in empty beds in hospital wings, and harmless petty offenders in maximum security jails.

The figures behind the crisis are startling. There were 1,402 women in jail on 28 February 1993. Last Friday, there were 1,950. The female prison population has risen by 40 per cent in two years, while the male population rose by 25 per cent to about 48,000 in the same period.

What has gone wrong? The obvious explanation - a female crime wave - does not stand up. It is true that the number of women convicted or cautioned has risen in the past decade. But this cannot account for the new propensity of judges and magistrates to send them to jail for the simple reason that the number of women offenders peaked in 1992, before the sharp rise in women prisoners.

Nor is there much evidence that the courts are prejudiced against women. Criminologists have found that women are less likely to be jailed than men even when their backgrounds and crimes are identical. It is hard to be definite, but the evidence suggests that, if judges have a bias, it is a "chivalrous" prejudice in favour of women.

Feminist criminologists once argued that emancipation would inevitably make women more masculine and, therefore, more criminal - in that sense, they almost welcomed a rising female crime rate. But the truth is that men are still five times more likely than women to be cautioned or convicted. And the women criminals, more numerous but still relatively few, are not Thelmas and Louises on a rampage fuelled by the exhilaration of emancipation. They are miserable and broke. If they are not in jail for failing to pay their television licences, it is for petty theft or drugs-related offences.

Among the cases on the books of Women in Prison, a pressure group, is that of a 28-year-old Wakefield woman who was fined £460 for fiddling her electricity meter. She said she could not afford to pay and was jailed for three months. Another concerns a woman imprisoned for 28 days for falsifying her CV when she applied for a job.

These sad little histories illustrate the reality of prisons. The vast majority of people inside them - men and women - are homeless or jobless (or, at best, they held unskilled, part-time jobs) or mentally ill or all three. Above all, they come from the third of British society we may as well call the poor as terms like "the working class" no longer make sense.

More than a third of the women who went to prison in 1993 had failed to pay fines - for prostitution, motoring offences, failure to buy a television licence or other petty offences. In all, 22,754 men and women were imprisoned in that year not because their offences were serious but because they did not have access to cash, bank accounts or credit cards. The fine default figures for 1994 are likely to be even higher.

Yet with the exception of tiny pressure groups, probation officers and one MP - Lynne Jones, the Labour member for Selly Oak - nobody is particularly concerned. The right, in the shape of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, regards prison as the proper place for fine defaulters. The feminist left has concentrated much of its indignation on the unwillingness of the legal establishment to promote women. This is certainly important but, for defendants facing jail because they cannot afford to pay fines, it is hardly a consolation to know that a well-heeled woman has been given the profitable privilege of prosecuting them instead of a well-heeled man.

The silence is explained by the embarrassment of defendants, Dr Jones argues. People jailed for non-payment do not make a fuss. The press does not cover these minor cases. The fate of the poor in a society where they are an inconvenient embarrassment is to be all but invisible. This is why the only serious recent attempt to make the justice system more egalitarian collapsed for want of political support.

The Government, following the example of 10 other European countries, introduced "unit fines", related to the ability to pay. The principle behind the scheme was that a £500 fine could lead to imprisonment for an unemployed man or single mother but would come out of the petty cash of an executive on £70,000 a year.

The pilot projects were a success. "Can't pays" were separated from "won't pays" and the number of poor defendants sent to prison fell by a quarter. The rich, in turn, were made to realise that breaking the law was a serious matter.

But the fate of the scheme, when it went national, is a textbook example of how badly Britain is governed. The Treasury, smelling a money earner, intervened and imposed unexpectedly high fines on offenders with modest incomes. The press challenged the scheme as "ordinary" people faced apparently unfair penalties. Kenneth Clarke, Home Secretary in 1993, decided to abandon the idea.

The contempt of Home Office civil servants is palpable even now. "People were disgusted," said David Faulkner, former deputy secretary at the Home Office. "There was not one politician with the will to hold his nerve."

So the Treasury ended up with nothing and the affluent convicted of offences were left with having to pay penalties which were in most cases only minor inconveniences.

Poor men and women continue to be jailed for their poverty. This week as expensive emergency measures begin in the women's prisons, the price of the Government's indifference to the consequences of inequality will once again be on show.