Two in five women sent to prison in a single year will be unconvicted
Britain has seen three prime ministers, two general elections and a global economic crisis in the eight years since Labour peer Baroness Corston delivered a major report calling on the government to scrap women’s prisons.
But the wheels of justice can move very slowly, and for all the praise that the Corston Report received then and since, the number of women prisoners has fallen by less than 500 in that time. Indeed, there are almost twice as many women behind bars today as there were 20 years ago.
For the reasons why, we can turn to a report published yesterday (30 June) by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System (APPG).
The group is chaired by Baroness Corston, but it comprises MPs and peers from all parties and its recommendations illustrate the need for a change in approach from decision-makers across the political spectrum.
The APPG, which is supported by the Howard League for Penal Reform, states that thousands of women in England and Wales are being criminalised needlessly each year, to the detriment of their families and the communities in which they live.
Many of these women are victims of crime themselves, and their repeated victimisation is often the very reason that has led to them getting into trouble. They have acute and multiple needs that cannot be met appropriately in police stations, courtrooms and prisons, but that is where they often end up.
They should not have to get arrested to get the support they need.
A chief constable told the APPG’s inquiry that many women coming into contact with the police were ‘trapped in a cycle of multiple disadvantage and where domestic violence was a common occurrence’.
Although the female prison population stands at just fewer than 4,000, the true number of women being arrested and punished each year – often for matters that would be better dealt with outside the justice system – is far greater.
More than 9,000 women went to prison in the 12 months ending June 2014, the report states, usually on short sentences but also on remand.
Two in five women sent to prison in a single year will be unconvicted and, of those remanded by magistrates, 71 per cent will not get a prison sentence – either because they are acquitted or because their offence is not serious enough to merit custody.
Almost 10,000 women were given community sentences in the 12 months ending September 2014, while police issued more than 6,500 fines and 37,300 cautions.
The report points out that this is a very expensive way of doing things badly, particularly when interventions which have been proven to reduce crime – women’s centres and diversion schemes – are struggling for funding.
It also gives warning that recent changes to probation – introduced under the coalition government’s Transforming Rehabilitation agenda – could pull more women into the system and keep them there for longer.
The APPG raises concerns that expertise in working with women could be lost, and that women could be drawn into the system as private firms delivering probation contracts seek to hit targets that would trigger bonus payments.
The report states:
“Women can be seen as easy targets who are unlikely to reoffend and can be provided with cheap, unnecessary services, allowing companies to hit targets and thereby increase profits.”
As we digest the report, the APPG is already planning its next programme of work – an inquiry into the policing of women.
The number of child arrests made by police has fallen by 59 per cent in five years, following a sustained campaign by the Howard League. Is it wishful thinking to hope for a similar change in the way we approach the unique problems faced by women?
Rob Preece works at the Howard League for Penal Reform. Follow him on Twitter
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