Interview with Penelope Gibbs: An addendum on class.

Class and suffering

If I recall correctly you made a comment at the premiere of Injustice that while class plays an important part in the prison system, for example in terms of warehousing. At the same time those from higher status may suffer even more in prison. Can you explain what you mean by this? 

I don’t think those of higher social class suffer more in prison, just think it’s a mistake to think that only working class people get imprisoned. There are proportionately fewer middle class people in prison but they are there. In prison, I think no-one does well but middle class people don’t do any worse than others, partly because they usually have skills and expertise they are happy to share with other prisoners.

There seems to be an accepted truth that defendants from poor backgrounds are more easily found guilty or punished severely, because of their class position. Yet, as someone said to me the other day, there’s an element of “you should have known better” that white collar defendants often face, and therefore are seen as more culpable. Is this sense of responsibility reflected in sentencing?

I think middle class people are not punished more severely than others. But they receive no leniency either – judges are very aware of the popular narrative that “bankers have gone unpunished but have done huge harm”.

Class and mitigation

It’s curious that from the people I’ve spoken to there seems to be a belief that those from professional backgrounds are somehow immune from the disruptions that are seen to affect the disadvantaged, yet it seems that they are as prone to such conditions as debt, alcoholism, abuse, childhood trauma and so on. How are such mitigations seen in court?

Someone needs to research the impact of class on mitigation and sentencing in general. Not convinced that middle class people accused of serious crimes are as likely as working class defendants to have suffered debt, trauma, abuse etc but there will be contextual reasons underlying their crime. Very little crime is carefully planned and rational.

Shared severity

In the film David Scott makes the point about the ruination of conviction. He suggests that those at the bottom of the pile are not dissuaded from re-offending because “if you ain’t got nothing, you ain’t got nothing to lose”. On the other hand, those from more comfortable backgrounds have more to lose. You’ve written before about the multiple consequences of conviction. Does this mean in a perverse way punishments for the privileged are more severe than for the less fortunate?

The way we punish those who are convicted of crime is equally severe regardless of class. Well-off people have more to lose literally in terms of money and property, but they have more resources in terms of social capital – friends, family, skills etc. The middle class criminal will suffer ostracisation by some but seldom by all their networks.

In the end though I don’t want to set up a competition between people with convictions of different classes. I don’t think it’s helpful. We punish all those convicted in England and Wales very severely regardless of class. The key is to understand that our system devastates lives of those convicted, whatever their class.

Meeting different needs

I’ve spoken to several people from professional backgrounds, both those with convictions and those merely smeared by the press (i.e. who faced a trial by media in lieu of court). They have been unable to work in the formal economy since conviction. Support seems to be geared toward habilitating people into low-end jobs. What sort of challenges do professionals face in terms of building new lives?

The system is inevitably designed for the greater number – those with convictions who have have low skills and education. Middle class people with convictions are in a minority and inevitably, unfortunately, services do not meet their needs. Professionals with convictions face huge challenges rebuilding their lives.

We need to offer them more support, but also work to reduce the need for that support – so lower the barriers to those with convictions moving on with their lives. This means we need to reduce the stigma of having a criminal conviction and change the law on criminal records, so the record itself does not become a life sentence.

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