In December 2016, Lavinia Woodward stabbed her boyfriend in the lower leg with a bread knife. She had been drinking heavily and was upset her boyfriend was contacting her mother. Under normal circumstances, this would usually be enough for a custodial sentence in England.
But the 24-year-old was a student at Oxford University and that seemed to color things differently. Judge Ian Pringle described Woodward as “an extraordinarily able young lady” and suspended her 10-month jail sentence because he believed prison would damage her dreams of becoming a doctor.
She will also not be thrown out of her university, with her college suspending disciplinary hearings against her. (Not her first; she had been warned about taking cocaine in the past.) Unsurprisingly, the case sparked backlash across the country—there were also several complaints made against the judge—and the white, posh Woodward became the face of glaring inequality in Britain’s criminal justice system.
Contrast that, for example, with a young black British student—with no criminal record—who was jailed for six months for stealing bottles of water during a night of the London riots in 2011. The stark differences between the two sentencing helps explain the demographic of the UK prison population. Black people make up just 3% of the UK general population, but 12% of the prison population. This is a reality for black Americans too, who are incarcerated five times more than white people.
Woodward’s decision this week to appeal against her suspended sentence has brought the case to the forefront once more. There were more calls for her to serve time in prison. but as a barrister who wrote an anonymous op-ed pointed out, Woodward had mitigating factors. She had suffered domestic violence in a previous relationship, which led to drug misuse. After stabbing her boyfriend, Woodward had allegedly tried to stab herself before she was disarmed.
The injustice isn’t that Woodward isn’t in jail. As the barrister succinctly explains, she is “a victim of domestic violence with severe mental health and substance misuse problems being given a chance to rebuild her life.” It’s that so many other young women like her across the world are denied that same chance because of their background, wealth, or power. This is all the more important in places like the US, where women are the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population.
Who can afford justice?
Woodward’s case isn’t particularly unique. A study last year linked a dramatic increase in the US women’s prison population—it has grown 14-fold since the 1970—with trauma, sexual violence and mental health issues. The majority of women entering US jails are black and Hispanic and in far more vulnerable situations than men. A third of all American women in jail have a serious mental illness, six times that of women in the general public; 86% of women in jails reported experiencing sexual violence at some point in their life, which is four times the rate of women in the wider population.
In the UK, 46% of women in prison report having suffered domestic violence, 53% report having experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse during childhood, while 31% women in prison have spent time in government care as a child. Imprisoned women are five times as likely to have a mental health concern than the general population.
While the British judge was able to recognize that Woodward’s mental-health problems should keep her out of prison, a young black woman named Sarah Reed ended up killing herself in prison last year awaiting medical reports about whether she was mentally fit to plead. (Reed was charged for assaulting a nurse in a secure psychiatric unit.) Reed killed herself three days before the report would conclude she was unfit to plead. Inquest, a charity that monitors state-related deaths, condemned the fact that Reed, who was known to have a serious mental illness, was in prison at all.
Women weren’t just coming into prison vulnerable—in the UK, most women entering prison sentences (84%) do so for non-violent offenses and, in the US, the vast majority of women are in prison for nonviolent property and drug crimes—but they are also leaving prison in an even more emotionally, physically, and financially precarious situation than when they went in.
It’s this argument—that prison would do more harm then good—that kept Woodward out of jail. It’s just that Woodward had a criminal lawyer who “specializes in defending wealthy people” and it was her ability to pay for such a lawyer who was able to tell a story the courts have heard so many times before in such a compelling way that the system decided to treat her as vulnerable defendant.
The outrage should focus on the fact that so many ethnic minorities, especially the poorer female ones, just don’t have the privilege of being treated the same way.