Two events over the past few days have inspired me to write this blog. First, the Huhne/Pryce trial: as Alex Andreou mentioned in his recent article we all know what the received wisdom is: “The poor commit crimes; the rich just make mistakes.” And secondly, International Women’s Day. One of the less-reported stories that day involved an official complaint by the Howard League for Penal Reform, made to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. It involved a girl called Dora (name changed).
Back in 2007, Dora committed a crime: very definitely, a crime. At the time, she was 14 years old. She was with three males and a second girl, and was present when a victim was assaulted and their mobile phone was taken. She pleaded guilty to the theft on a joint enterprise basis.
She was handed a two-year community sentence and was right at the end of it when she either committed another crime, or made a mistake – it rather depends how you see things. She missed three appointments with her Youth Offending Team. She later explained that she’d failed to do so because she felt the male youth offending team worker had behaved inappropriately towards her and made her feel uncomfortable.
But like Huhne and Pryce, Dora either committed a minor crime, or made a mistake. And like Huhne and Pryce, she was handed a custodial sentence (six months in a detention centre). And like Huhne and Pryce, there were some mitigating factors in her defence. But first, I should quote Alex’s piece:
Explicit in these interviews [with middle class ex-lags], the idea that prison is somehow easy-peasy for those who have thus far had a brutally traumatised existence. This actually makes sense to these white, highly educated, middle class reporters, with six-figure salaries. If your life has been utterly shitty from birth, losing your liberty is not only unremarkable, but par for the course.
And these are the mitigating factors in Dora’s case, the kind for which we somehow seem to have rather less sympathy as a nation. Dora had been forced to leave her family home at the age of 12 by her father. Her mother was a drug addict, with whom she lost contact. Since then, she’d moved from one foster or children’s home to the next. Towards the end of her supervision order she’d moved out of a children’s home into semi-independent accommodation with support – her key worker would later report she had made great progress. This worker’s report also noted Dora’s significant history of self-harm and suicidal ideation (indeed, she had previously been hospitalised for three days following a significant suicide attempt). And finally, and most importantly: she was now pregnant.
Dora was 16. As a result of being incarcerated, she lost her accommodation and a place on a course. Youth prisons are not nice places for pregnant girls. She was bullied. One boy kept telling her he would kick the baby out of her. She was taken to medical appointments in handcuffs and strip searched on return. The father of Dora’s child, with whom she is on good terms, couldn’t attend scans and medical appointments. She missed ante-natal classes, which she’d attended prior to the sentence (important, as she’d not engaged with full-time education).
A reminder: Britain has the highest child custody rate in Western Europe. Another reminder: The UN convention on Human Rights says that “in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” It also says custody should be a last resort. Another reminder: the 2003 Criminal Justice Act states: “The court must not pass a custodial sentence unless it is of the opinion that the offence…was so serious that neither a fine alone nor a community sentence can be justified…” A final reminder: the Corston Report into women in custody highlighted that a disproportionate number of women are given custodial sentences for breaches of community orders. The UK Government has yet to do anything about this.
“I’ve had to deal with a number of cases involving pregnant children,” says Laura Janes, one of the solicitors who has handled Dora’s case. “And they make my blood curdle.” She describes some of them to me: a mentally ill teenager who was told by prison staff that something was terribly wrong with her baby but for weeks was given no indication of when she’d receive treatment (despite repeated requests from Janes). A pregnant girl in jail for breaching a community sentence, like Dora, being told her baby had a less-than 10 per cent chance of survival but that she wouldn’t be granted compassionate release and spent Christmas alone in prison. A young woman who’d been exploited by a cannabis-growing gang being separated from her child despite independent assessments showing she was a good mother.
“The fact these children are pregnant,” says Janes, “is almost an aggravating factor: ‘Oh, you irresponsible girl, you’ve got pregnant on top of it.’ We have deep-running prejudices in the justice system which skew our capacity to make judgements about women. Take, for instance, the issue of female sex offenders. No one wants to talk about them – there’s no accredited course or any other resources at all to reform their behaviour. But who are these women really? They’re usually the most damaged women in custody.”
And of course, they’re criminals, and they’re usually from extremely deprived backgrounds. Because the poor don’t generally make mistakes: they commit crimes.