Short prison sentences fail vulnerable women. It's time for reform

Eight women died in prison last year, five of them by suicide. We need a rethink on sentencing to prevent more of these tragedies.

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As we approach International Women’s Day, I am introducing a Bill in the House of Commons that focuses on a group of women who are too often neglected: the 7,000 women who are sent to prison each year, most of them on short sentences for non-violent offences.

Sentences of less than a year don’t work to prevent crime. The Government’s own analysis shows that they lead to higher rates of reoffending than community sentences, and the President of the Prison Governors Association has described them as “pointless”. They need to end for both men and women.

But we also need to recognise that prison is especially damaging for women.

Most women in prison are vulnerable people. The majority experienced abuse as a child, and many are survivors of domestic abuse as adults. They are more likely than male prisoners to have poor mental health or problems with alcohol and drugs.

Shockingly, self-harm rates in women’s prisons are almost five times the rate in men’s prisons, and they are rising. Eight women died in prison last year; five of them by suicide. We need reform to prevent more of these tragedies.

These alarming statistics should be enough on their own to make the case that women should only be sent to prison where absolutely necessary: for the most serious crimes, or where they pose a threat to the public. That does clearly not apply to many women prisoners right now.

To make matters worse, two thirds of women in prison are mothers of dependent children, and at least a third of these are single parents. Separating them from their children has a harsh impact on their welfare, going far beyond the intended punishment of imprisonment itself.

And just think about the 17,000 children who are separated from their mothers each year, because their mothers are sent to prison. The vast majority of them are moved out of their homes as a result. Just think about the damage that does to the child’s development and wellbeing, as well as the pressure it puts on already stretched public services.

Having a parent in prison is a traumatic experience for a child, and can have strong detrimental effects throughout their life. “Adverse Childhood Experiences” such as this increase the risk of developing physical and mental health problems, from liver disease to depression and alcoholism, as well as poor performance at school and involvement in violence.

It is vital, therefore, that the best interests of children are taking into account when making decisions about whether to send their mothers to prison.

13 years ago, Baroness Corston conducted a review of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system for the Labour Government. She recommended that “custodial sentences for women must be reserved for serious and violent offenders who pose a threat to the public”, and that women’s prisons should be replaced with “suitable, geographically dispersed, small, multi-functional, custodial centres”.

At the time, the Government accepted these recommendations in principle, but they have not been implemented.

More recently, the Conservative Government published a “Female Offender Strategy” in 2018, in which it declared: “We want to reduce the female prison population, with fewer offenders sent to custody for short sentences. We will therefore shift our emphasis from custody to the community”.

So there is now a clear cross-party consensus for reducing the use of prison for women. All that’s lacking is action and urgency – and that’s why I am tabling the Sentencing (Women) Bill this week.

My Bill would ensure that women are only sent to prison if they have committed serious crimes or pose a threat to the public. For others, tough, community-based sentences should be imposed instead. They would be far more effective at preventing reoffending and helping women who’ve committed crimes to turn their lives around.

Given their support for the principle, I hope both Labour and the Conservatives will support my Bill, so that we can take a more effective approach to cutting crime and reduce the destructive impact of prison on women and children.

Daisy Cooper is the Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans 

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