Women in Prison – some recent developments

The Prison Reform Trust

The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) is an independent UK charity working to create a just, humane and effective penal system. They inquire into the workings of the system; informing prisoners, staff and the wider public; and by influencing Parliament, government and officials towards reform.

The Prison Reform Trust’s main objectives are:
1.reducing unnecessary imprisonment and promoting community solutions to crime
2.improving treatment and conditions for prisoners and their families
3.promoting equality and human rights in the justice system.

The Prison Reform Trust has a three year strategy to reduce the imprisonment of women in the UK. Supported by the Pilgrim Trust and PRT Friends, the strategy builds on the work of the Women’s Justice Taskforce. You can read the strategy here: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/Womenleaflet.pdf

The Howard League for Penal Reform

The Howard League have revealed that some magistrates’ courts in England and Wales are up to four times more likely than others to send a woman to prison.

Research by the charity shows that, on the whole, magistrates are handing down fewer jail terms to women than in previous years – but there is a striking disparity between sentencing rates in different parts of the country. The figures suggest that, while many courts are making good use of community sentences which help cut crime and turn women’s lives around, other benches are imposing prison terms unnecessarily in some cases. The maximum sentence that a magistrates’ court can impose is a six-month prison term, or up to 12 months in total for more than one offence.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “We welcome the drop in the use of short prison sentences for women in recent years, but it remains the case that a woman convicted of a non-violent offence is more likely to go to prison than a man. Women who find themselves in court often need a lot of support. They are often victims of crimes themselves such as domestic abuse or pimping. Sending these women to prison for a few weeks is not the answer to the complex issues in their lives. We are concerned that legislation currently going through parliament may make the situation for women worse. The Offender Rehabilitation Bill extends short prison sentences with a year of supervision in the community but it is unclear how specialist services for women will survive as the government seeks to privatise probation using large regional contracts that will squeeze out small local providers.”

Sentencing data for some criminal justice areas in England and Wales:
Criminal justice area Immediate custody/Total sentenced
Essex 112/7435
Kent 103/7144
London 982/45909
Sussex 111/6125
TOTAL 4319/286953

You can read The Howard League’s press release here: http://www.howardleague.org/magistrates-courts-women/

The Commons Justice Select Committee

The Commons Justice Select Committee, which heard evidence from campaigners, found that the female prison population had not fallen fast enough and more than half of women continued to receive ineffective short custodial sentences.

About 3,900 women were in prison at the end of March, an eight per cent drop in the number behind bars a year earlier. Some believe this is vastly in excess of the number that actually needs to be locked up and just 3.5 per cent of that number – including the serial killer Rose West – should be kept in secure conditions, the committee heard.

The MPs concluded that prison remained an “expensive and ineffective” way of dealing with many female offenders who do not pose a significant risk to public safety. They called for a redesign of the female custodial estate and a “significant” increase in the use of residential alternatives to custody.

Sir Alan Beith MP, the committee chairman, said: “The Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation reforms have clearly been designed with male offenders in mind. This is unfortunately symptomatic of an approach within the Ministry of Justice and National Offender Management Service that tends to deal with women offenders as an afterthought.”

The committee found that the Government’s focus on cutting re-offending was likely to trigger further loss of funding for women’s community centres. The MPs said there was a compelling case for commissioning services for women offenders separately and for applying other incentive mechanisms that would encourage the diversion of women from crime.

Justice Minister Helen Grant said: “This Government is committed to seeing fewer women offending and reoffending. Some female offenders need to go to prison, but we must ensure they get the right support to stop them returning to crime. That’s why we’re changing the law so for the first time all prisoners will receive at least 12 months tailored, through the gate supervision on release. We are also ensuring that the courts have credible and robust sentence options at their disposal.”

You can read the full Committee Report here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmjust/92/92.pdf

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