Children in Custody: It’s a Gender Issue

Boys in detention centre, Togo

The United Nations has just published a major study on children in custody worldwide. My thanks to the ever-energetic Douglas for alerting me to this UN study. The main report, by Manfred Nowak, is 758 page long. It identifies 7 million children in various types of custody, including police cells, prison, and detention centres. 94% of them are boys.

The panel which led the study consisted of 170 non-governmental organizations working directly or indirectly on children’s deprivation of liberty. Information was collected from every region of the world: 41 inputs from Europe; 27 from Africa; 20 from Asia, 19 from North and South America; and 11 from Oceania.

The treatment meted out to many of these children is extremely distressing, and I do not intend to go into those details here. One may hope – and expect – that children in custody in the UK do not experience such brutality. However, in terms of the gender ratio of children in custody, the worldwide data and UK data are similar – except that it is even more extreme in the UK, with 97% – 98% of children in custody here being boys.

The UN is hardly noted for being a man-friendly organisation. It drives a host of feminist agendas. That only makes what follows even more noteworthy.

I quote firstly the UN Secretary-General’s own words, from his relatively snappy 23 page report, “Global study on children deprived of liberty, Note by the Secretary-General, 11 July 2019”.

The data collected for the study indicate significant gender disparities in the situation of children deprived of liberty. Altogether, there are far more boys deprived of liberty worldwide than girls. In the administration of justice and in the contexts of armed conflicts and national security, 94% of all detained children are boys; in migration detention the figure is 67% and in institutions it is 56%. The number of boys and girls who live with their primary caregiver (almost exclusively mothers) in prison is similar.”

Compared with the overall crime rate for children, the data gathered for the study show a tendency of the child justice system to be more inclined to apply diversion measures to girls than boys. While approximately one third of all criminal offences worldwide committed by children are attributed to girls, only 6% receive a prison sentence. There may be various reasons for this phenomenon. Most importantly, girls usually commit less violent offences and are more often accused of status offences. Girls are generally first-time offenders and more receptive to the deterrent effect of incarceration. Another explanation is the “chivalrous and paternalistic” attitude of many male judges and prosecutors in the child justice systems, who assume, according to traditional gender stereotypes, that girls are more in need of protection than boys.”

Although most States allow convicted mothers to co-reside with their young children in prison, only eight States explicitly permit fathers to do so. Even in places where fathers as primary caregivers are allowed to co-reside with their children, there are (almost) no appropriate “father and child units” in the prisons, which means that there are practically no children co-residing in prison with their fathers.”

Children from poor and socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, migrant and indigenous communities, ethnic and religious minorities and the LGBTI community, as well as children with disabilities and, above all, boys, are largely overrepresented in detention and throughout judicial proceedings.” (my emphasis)

Deprivation of liberty constitutes a form of structural violence against children

In view of the latter observation, and the overwhelming preponderance of boys in custody, can one not reasonably conclude that here we have an instance of gendered structural violence – against boys? And yet you will find no mention of this in the Istanbul Convention.

The complete report is “UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty” (Manfred Nowak, November 2019). The section on “Discrimination Against Boys” puts England and Wales amongst the top few countries in terms of gender ratio: “In some States, the percentage of boys detained in the context of the administration of justice is close to 98% (England and Wales, Argentina) or even 99% (South Africa, Georgia)”. Did we want to be in such company?

Almost all you need to know is the title of one of the report’s sub-sections,

Penal System is the Most Gendered Institution in Society

Quite.

What follows in that section is something I never thought to see in a report from the UN.

Most research on the gender dimension of deprivation of liberty relates to the administration of criminal justice and primarily addresses cases of discrimination against girls, not against boys. Yet in 2006, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro noted that ‘millions of children, particularly boys, spend substantial periods of their lives under the control and supervision of care authorities or justice systems, in institutions such as juvenile detention facilities and reform schools.

According to research conducted by Bruce Abramson in the same year, the ‘penal system, adult and juvenile, is the most heavily gendered institution in society, even more so than the military, given current trends. He adds that the human rights movement, and the children’s rights movement in particular, is contributing to this male-female gender gap by discriminating against boys” (my emphasis)

It continues with this quote from Abramson,

Whether we look at the CRC* movement, or at the broader human rights movement, or at the specialized juvenile justice advocacy, we find the same pattern of avoiding the gender dimension of juvenile justice. Some adults are in deep denial of the gender issue when boys are at the losing end of the disparities. But most people recognise that there is a gender issue. The problem is that no one has found an effective, positive way to address it. I think that juvenile justice professionals and CRC activists are paying a dear price in credibility for their failure to address gender: the public knows – at some level of awareness – that the advocates for reform are not addressing the problem when they duck the gender dimension of delinquency….Sad to say, there is outright sex discrimination against boys in the CRC movement.” (*CRC is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child)

Wow! Let me just check this is really a UN report. But it may be significant that Nowak had to go back to research reported in 2006 for this evidence. He goes on to note,

Although girls are less likely to commit serious criminal offences than boys, the detention rate does not reflect the crime rate. More than one-third (35-40%) of all criminal offences worldwide are attributed to girls. However, only one fourth of all children (25%) who come in formal contact with the criminal justice system are girls. Finally, only 11.6% of all convicted children are girls, and only 6% of all children who end up in detention are girls

Nowak concludes that the data show that girls receive more lenient sentences, usually non-custodial, and tend to benefit from diversion away from custody through all the stages of the process. These observations are depicted in the graphics below.

Figure 1

Figure 2

The similarity with adult imprisonment in the UK is striking. It appears that neither age nor culture greatly ameliorates the huge sex-bias in incarceration. In the case of adults in the UK, we are surely long past any debate about the overwhelming male dominance in prison being largely due to discrimination; the progress of men and women through the UK criminal justice systems is remarkably similar to Figure 1. It is reasonable to suppose that discrimination is responsible also for the overwhelming preponderance of boys in the juvenile facilities.

Nowak’s chapter on gender issues ends in Recommendations which include this,

Address over-representation of boys in detention by various means, above all by promoting diversions at all stages in the criminal justice system and by proportionally applying non-custodial solutions to boys, as it is more widely practised with girls.”

Who is going to hold the relevant UK Minister’s feet to the fire on this one?

It seems we have a way to go in some quarters. As of April 2018, there were 913 boys and just 27 girls in the secure estate in England & Wales (97.1% boys). In that month, Anne Longfield, the Childrens’ Commissioner for England, reported on a visit to some of these childrento learn about their lives before entering custody and understand the factors that led to them being imprisoned and what, if anything, could have been done to change their trajectory”. Well, very laudable. It’s exactly what a Children’s Commission should do. I have no difficulty with that…except that out of 913 boys and 27 girls…the 10 children she chose were all girls.

10 thoughts on “Children in Custody: It’s a Gender Issue

  1. paul parmenter

    I recall reading, some years back now, some worthy advocate (sorry his name escapes me) who explained the criminal justice system as a gigantic exercise in filtration: the purpose and effect being to filter out female wrongdoers at every stage of the process. Thus female crime was less likely to be reported to the authorities in the first place; when reported, females were less likely to be arrested; when arrested, females were less likely to be charged; when charged, females were less likely to be prosecuted; and so on, through to the extremely limited number of women who ended up with a custodial sentence in comparison with males who would be far more likely to be behind bars for the same crime.

    To this filtration process I would add a further initial stage that is generally off everyone’s radar, but has a huge effect. This is the fact that there are certain destructive behaviours that are either highly characteristic of, or totally unique to, females but which are simply not defined as criminal actions at all. Perhaps the most egregious is paternity fraud. And given the huge reluctance of the police to take any action against it, despite it actually being a crime, I would add false rape accusation to the list. Do any women ever draw jail time for this?

    Reply
    1. William Collins Post author

      Yes women do occasionally get prison for false rape allegations. But it is very rare, even when it has become perfectly evident that the allegation was definitely false. A 2013 CPS report indicated that there were just 35 prosecutions for false rape allegations in a period in which 5,651 rape cases were prosecuted (0.6%), though I don’t know how many women were convicted or sent to prison. Probably just a handful. This contrasts with credible estimates that, in recent years, more than half of rape allegations have been false (see my book for details). See http://empathygap.uk/?p=2176 for cases where the woman has been imprisoned.

      Reply
  2. Michael McVeigh

    Oh well, that’s the end of UN reports from Nowak & Abramson.
    Philip Davis has been banging on in the UK Parliament regarding gendered incarceration rates for years & nothing has changed.

    Reply
    1. Groan

      Philip’s story is interesting. He himself says that for years he had simply believed that assertions in debates, that women were treated worse, were in fact true. It was only when he asked for a briefing paper from the Library of Parliament that he found out the exact reverse was true. (a resource for all MPs producinv briefings at their request from official data sources). To his credit he soon “went public” and the following year addressed the Mens internation conference on the topic.
      My point is never underestimate the power of actual data. I have worked in local government and the NHS and even the Civil Service. And all three rarely use the vast data sets available to them to develop policy (after all the job is to do the bidding of elected politicians not confront them with information that contradicts their ideologically derived policies). It is very important to amass information from credible sources and keep it constantly at hand. For when the moment of opportunity occurs the data can change things. As it did for MR. Philip’s.
      I realise that it is immensely frustrating to have to repeat and repeat and repeat.
      As with this UN report there is an irony in the triumph of feminism. That is that information formerly about “people” (often as a term sort of hiding men) is more and more men and women. Boys and Girls. And the data, time after time, shows not Male privileges at all. As with this the complete opposite. Do not dismiss even “feminist” research because often the conclusion or executive summary simply leaves out the data on males in the report. And that data frequently demonstrates the real position of males.
      Mr Collins is a master at drawing out the full data. And over time I believe this is a part of making a difference. In recent years, in health ,mental health, education and parental leave I’ve heard people more and more aware that there are equality issues unaddressed for males. There was a time when I heard no one even consider males may not be “empowered” now I hear conversations all the time on the topic of same treatment and equality meaning addressing Male difficulties.
      Remember we have centuries of gynocentric culture to push against.

      Reply
      1. William Collins Post author

        I endorse what you say about “looking within” journal papers for the actual findings – which are often not accurately or fully represented by the Conclusions. I suspect many researchers appease their consciences by being reasonably even handed in the text – but giving their paymasters what they want in the Conclusions – which is all that 99% of people will read.

        Reply
        1. Mike Chaffin

          Just a thought…. Whilst he took over 50% at the last election I’m sure we can all agree that Mr Davies being returned to Parliament is of the utmost strategic importance.

          Whilst I’d rather lie dead in a ditch than vote Tory I’ve emailed him an offer of help should he need it in this general election campaign.

          As a Ukipper I can’t really scratch my political itch this election, but suggest that anyone else who feels such an itch also offers to lend their help on the ground.

          Is Shipley nice at this time of year?

          Reply
  3. Douglas Milnes

    The Pinheiro Report (2006) was not as damning of discrimination as the new Nowak Report, despite similar findings. I suspect part of this is that Nowak is Austrian and may be old enough to be familiar with discrimination and oppression: first by the Nazis and then under Communism until gaining freedom.

    In 2006, Kofi Annan was the General-Secretary of the UN and there wasn’t much more than a murmur about the Pinheiro report. Ban Ki-moon is a different matter, from a country less entrenched in Western feminism (though Korea does have its share of problems from it). His comments are by no means out of context with the main report, or with the findings that back up Nowak’s report, but are truly astounding from the head of an organisation that converted itself into a feminist organisation in 2000.

    Reading the Nowak report, and even more some of the supporting documentation, it is clear that the researchers had some tearful times with children they came across. At one time, two researchers had witnessed the vicious treatment given by guerrilla forces to boys as young as 7 to turn them into tough soldiers. They then went to the government to find out what was being done: only to find out that any such children captured by government forces were likely to be tortured into giving up all information, then detained in dirty and under-fed conditions without trial or care.

    It is up to all of us to help these boys, in whatever country. Seven million boys need us to care.

    Reply
  4. Dick

    I haven’t read all of this rather long piece, but it seems the feminists in the UN must have been at a feminist conference when this was submitted and published. It is also appalling that nobody in government insisted that Longfield include at least on boy in her study.

    Reply
    1. Groan

      As they say a picture says a thousand words. The graphs Mr Collins reproduces or produces are immensely important. I have used his data sources and graphs to make changes to local strategy or policies. I don’t expect such a report to cause a sea change in the UN but the “genie” is out of that particular bottle and will pop up in surprising places. Perhaps used by groupings of nations tired
      of interventions that undermine their Catholicism, or Islamic culture. Increasingly the dominant ideologies are being challenged by an Islamic grouping, a “Latin ” group and indeed China and its dependent powers.

      Reply

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