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Could longer sentences help to protect women? 

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A new movement has brought to the fore questions about how we beat sexism. Sadie Robinson argues liberation won’t come through the current justice system
Issue 2747
Protesters outside Scotland Yard
Protesters outside Scotland Yard (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Could harsher jail sentences and making harassment a crime keep women safer? Some people think so.

Following the killing of Sarah Everard women have felt able to share their experiences with harassment and violence.

Some say creating a specific crime of harassment of women would help.

Others also want longer sentences for existing crimes such as rape, sexual assault and domestic violence.

It’s tempting to support the demands.

After all, short sentences for rape seem to send a message that women aren’t worth protecting.

And if men can harass women without fear of arrest, surely that encourages them to carry on?

The new Tory policing bill would mean longer sentences for violent crimes and more police powers.


Thousands defy police bans to demand an end to violence against women
Thousands defy police bans to demand an end to violence against women
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Yet even the government has admitted there is “limited evidence” that it “will deter offenders long term or reduce overall crime”.

Frances Cook of the Howard League for Penal Reform said the bill “does nothing to protect women from violence or abuse”. Instead, harsher laws and giving cops more powers make women less safe.

The Women in Prison group said the bill risks “sweeping more women into the criminal justice system”.

“Black, Asian and minority ethnic women are more likely to be overpoliced, criminalised and receive disproportionately harsher treatment,” it said. “This Bill will entrench this inequality, specifically with plans to make sentences harsher.”

Prison doesn’t stop crime because crime reflects social problems rooted in the unequal, oppressive and violent world we live in. 

In Britain, sentences have already increased.

More than two and a half times as many people were sentenced to ten years or more in 2018 than in 2006.

This hasn’t stopped crime. And there is no link between the rate of imprisonment and recorded crime, according to the National Audit Office.

Harsher laws and more powers for the state aren’t used to protect ordinary people—they are used against us.

Prime ministers who kill tens of thousands of people in wars or through disastrous coronavirus policies aren’t thrown in jail.

Neither are fat cats who don’t pay taxes.

Prisons are full of poorer, working class people. Black people are more likely to be jailed than white people.

Many prisoners are victims themselves. 

Over half of women in Britain’s prison have suffered domestic violence, according to the Prison Reform Trust. And over half had suffered abuse as a child.

Men in jail are also more likely to have suffered abuse or to have been excluded from school. 

This doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable for people who have suffered themselves to attack others.

But there should be support and treatment for people to try and deal with their problems.


The cops won’t use any extra powers to keep women safe.  Police don’t protect women because it isn’t their job to do so, not because they lack resources or power.

They aren’t there to fight crime but to protect a violent and oppressive system.

Giving them more powers will mean more bullying and harassment of ordinary people.

To get rid of violence against women for good, we have to uproot the system that causes it and create a socialist society.

That doesn’t mean that we just wait for the revolution and put up with murder, violence and rape in the meantime. We must fight back against every instance of sexism in the here and now.

And we need more of the rage we have seen in the last two weeks.

But it does mean that we don’t go along with measures that will make life for working class women even harder.

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