Last Friday, there were 3,954 women in prison in England and Wales. Factor in those imprisoned in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the total approaches 4,500.
Every year around 13,500 women are driven through the prison gate, many to be held on remand, or to serve sentences of just a few weeks. Many won’t know which prison they are arriving at, and it is likely to be far from home. Others won’t have been expecting to go to prison when they went to court that morning. For those with dependent children, who may have made temporary arrangements with friends or family, this can mean frantic phone-calls upon arrival. Research suggests that more than 17,000 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment each year, despite Sentencing Guidelines that make sole or primary care responsibilities a mitigating factor, and courts’ duty to consider the welfare of children. Imprisonment takes a heavy toll on women (who account for 47% of all self-harm incidents in prison despite making up 5% of the total prison population) and their families. Most women offenders are more of a threat to themselves than to the public, so locking them up is unnecessary and counterproductive because it exacerbates poverty, disadvantage and social exclusion and doesn’t tackle the causes of women’s offending. That is why we need to reform women’s justice.
- What is being done to reduce the number of women still being sent to prison for minor offences?
- What is being done to ensure funding of specialist women’s services including community-based women’s centres which deliver the type of services and support most likely to tackle the drivers to women’s offending?
- When we can expect a coordinated and properly resourced women’s justice strategy - originally due in 2012, but now promised by end of March 2013?
Then just before Christmas 2012, the House of Lords successfully amended the Crime and Courts Bill to put community-based solutions for women who offend on a statutory footing. This would require services provided or funded by probation trusts to take account of women’s distinct needs. But the Government struck out the amendment at Committee stage. It said that “it could be unhelpful to introduce legislation specifying commissioning duties for women’s services”. We disagree. The Prison Reform Trust is calling on supporters to lobby their MPs to get the women’s amendment back into the Bill. Ministers cite “provision of gender-specific community services to improve support for vulnerable women in the criminal justice system” as an equalities objective of the Ministry of Justice and it’s time give that legal backing.
To email your MP in support of community provision for women offenders click here.
Jenny Earle, Programme Director, Reducing Women’s Imprisonment, Prison Reform Trust