Scrapping sentences of less than 12 months for women would ‘save lives and cut crime’

Scrapping sentences of less than 12 months for women would ‘save lives and cut crime’

Writing home at HMP Styal. Pic by Andy Aitchison

Prison sentences of less than 12 months should be scrapped  for women, according to a new report from a cross-party group of MPs and peers published yesterday.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System (APPG) reckoned that evidence of the case against short prison sentences was ‘overwhelming for women’. The group is chaired by Baroness Corston and pushes for the implementation of recommendations from her 2007 review of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system.

According to the APPG, women prisoners were ‘among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in society’ and almost half report having suffered domestic violence and more than half report emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood. The APPG, which is supported by the Howard League for Penal Reform, argued that women did not receive adequate mental health support with ‘catastrophic’ consequences. Last year there were 8,317 incidents of self-injury by women in prison, 93 women died in prison including 37 who lost their lives through suicide.

Last year just over two thirds of women sentenced to immediate custody were given sentences of less than six months and 246 women were sentenced to prison for less than two weeks. The number of community orders given to women fell by nine per cent in the first quarter of 2018 compared with 2017. The APPG argued that imprisoning women was ‘almost never’ justifiable in terms of public protection. Only three per cent of the women prisoners was assessed as representing a high risk of harm to others.

 ‘Abolishing short sentences for women would not have serious resource implications and would save lives. Ministers could leave as their legacy the brave and pioneering decision to eliminate short sentences for women.’

The APPG noted that the damage done by imprisonment continued post-release and, for example, fewer women than men leaving prison found jobs. Between April and June 2017, one in five women leaving prison were recorded as homeless at the point of release.

You can read the report Sentencers and sentenced: exploring knowledge, agency and sentencing women to prison here.

‘It is well established that imprisonment makes things worse, not better, for women, but our inquiry has found that women are still being sent to prison unnecessarily, and overwhelmingly for short periods,’ commented Baroness Corston, co-chair of the group. ‘Too often, magistrates view custody as the only option when all the evidence indicates that women’s centres provide better support for women and are more effective at reducing offending. Ministers are aware and have spoken publicly about the futility of short prison sentences. Scrapping them for women would save lives and reduce crime.’