The Prison Reform Trust yesterday published an analysis of local court area data which shows that 58% of prison sentences given to women in 2022 were for less than six months. The most frequent offence was ‘theft from shops’ which accounted for over a third (36%) of these prison sentences.
It was also found there were considerable geographical variations between different police force areas. 73% of prison sentences given to women in Nottinghamshire in 2022 were for less than six months, which compares with 43% of prisons sentences given to women in Merseyside. The Prison Reform Trust suggests that this variation may be due to some areas having developed a more joined up approach to dealing with women’s offending by the police, courts, and women’s services.
These findings come despite research from the Ministry of Justice which shows that prison sentences under six months lead to much higher rates of re-offending post-release than where sentences are served in the community.
The government’s Female Offender Strategy Delivery Plan, which was published earlier this year, has reaffirmed a commitment to see fewer women in prison. Their analysis had shown a 44% reduction in the overall use of imprisonment for women between 2014 and 2022. However, this year has seen the women’s prison population rise 15% to 3,604 as of 6th October 2023, which equates to an extra 500 women in prison. It is also predicted by the Ministry of Justice that the population will rise further to 3,800 by November next year.
These findings come amid severe overcrowding of prisons across England and Wales which last week saw judges told to delay sentencing for offenders that were already on bail. There have also been several recent inspection reports released which suggest many prisoners are living in very poor conditions. Just last week, it was revealed that HMP Eastwood, a women’s prison in Gloucestershire, was housing highly vulnerable women in ‘appalling’ conditions and that the prison had high levels of self-harm.
Pia Sinha, Chief Executive of the Prison Reform Trust, said: ‘…we continue to see too many women being sent to prison to serve pointless short sentences’ despite the fact ‘the government’s own evidence shows that community sentences see fewer people go on to commit crimes in future.’ She continued, ‘The unfolding capacity crisis is a chance for a reset on how we use these ineffective disposals.’
Ms Sinha called for the government to ‘learn from the progress made’ in certain areas to ‘develop a joined-up response to women’s offending, which is often driven by addictions and mental ill health’ and suggested that ‘the answers lie in proper investment in treatment and care in the community not prison.’