Female prisoners have doubled since 1994. Yet new research shows community service is far more effective. By HESTER LACEY
Vicky, 26, was convicted of fraud last year - her first offence. She was terrified of ending up in prison, mainly because she was a full- time mother to three daughters, the eldest of whom was only eight. She tried to keep her fears from them, but every day when she dropped them off at school she wasn't sure if she'd be there to pick them up that evening. She made elaborate plans covering how the children could be looked after. "I was preparing everything as if I knew I was about to die," she recalls. In the end, Vicky was lucky. Although a pre-sentencing report (which made no mention of her family circumstances) recommended custody, she was fined and sentenced to 180 hours of community service. Her family stayed together, she was able to help others and her experience gave her a sense of achievement.

If Vicky had been jailed she'd have joined a very big club. Last week, the Home Office reported that the number of women in prison has doubled over the past five years. It is likely these figures will rise even further in the near future, as the number of women aged 15 to 20, the peak age for offending, will rise by more than eight per cent over the next six years. This is not because women are committing more crimes, however; rising prison populations are down to harsher sentencing. This is alarming for campaigners for prison reform, who believe custodial sentences for women are often inappropriate. They argue community-based alternatives are as effective as prison - and avoid many of the social costs of putting women behind bars.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has published new research into community service which shows this option for women offenders is consistently underused. So what is community service? There are two common misconceptions about it. The first is that it's an ineffective "soft option" for criminals, the second that it is an equivalent of hard labour and unsuitable for women.

In fact, women are more likely than men to complete their community service successfully. And, says the Howard League's Charlotte Day, rates of reoffending compare favourably with offenders who've spent time in jail. There is a wide variety of non-custodial options. "Some are reparative, such as fitting locks in houses where people have been burgled," says Day. "More usually, it is work that benefits the community which wouldn't otherwise be done - with the proviso that it doesn't take away paid work from others." This can include painting and decorating in schools or for the physically incapacitated, helping in soup kitchens or old people's homes, or environmental projects such as clearing rivers.

There are strong arguments for wider use of community service sanctions, according to Day's research. First, she notes, under the Criminal Justice Act of 1991, prison is meant to be a last resort or to protect the public. Very few women are convicted of violent crime or are considered a danger to others. "We shouldn't be sending anyone to prison who could safely serve their sentence in the community. Locking people up is unlikely to have any rehabilitative effect. But working in the community is socially useful and positive for the person doing the work. People are learning skills that may be useful in their future life."

Secondly, children suffer when their mothers go to prison. Fifty-five per cent of women in prison have a child under 16; around one-third of them have a child younger than five. "In 1998, around 4,000 children were affected by their mothers going into prison," says Day. "Even if they can go to other family members, it is disruptive for them and some end up in local authority care." Even though most women in prison are serving short sentences - over half are in for less than six months - ending up in jail can mean jobs or even homes are lost - and prolonged family break-up. Community service can be applied flexibly, explains Day. "A woman with children might be able to start at 10am when she has taken the children to school. A community service officer has the discretion to take into account other obligations mothers might have."

Thirdly, the cost of community service is tiny compared with the cost of keeping a woman in prison and perhaps her children in care. It costs around pounds 23,000 to keep someone in prison for a year; the average cost of a community service order is pounds 1,670 per annum.

One person who can testify to the effectiveness of community service is Vicky. She has worked with adults with learning difficulties, and was also able to work towards a Vocational Access Certificate, part of an eventual NVQ qualification. "What with looking after my kids I'd never have had the time to get a qualification. Now I feel I'm giving something back but I am also achieving something." She also says community service had helped change the way she saw herself. "I like responsibilities. Before now I never saw anything through. Apart from my children, it's the only thing I've completed that I feel good about."

The Howard League recommends further developing the community service network to accommodate women. Measures they'd like to see include an increase in projects with childcare facilities, creation of more all-female groups and recruitment of more female staff. "There are still relatively few women coming through the system," says Day. "More resources are needed from the highest level to push for an improved service and halt the spiralling levels of imprisonment and get people working in the community. No woman who could safely serve her sentence in the community should go to prison."

The Howard League's views are supported by others. "There has not been a huge increase in crime, but more women are being sent to prison," says Nick Flynn, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust. "The harsher sentencing climate is due a lot to Michael Howard's influence, which Jack Straw doesn't talk down. The number of women in prison could be greatly reduced if dealt with in the community."

Susan Lord of the Inner London Probation Service adds: "We see community service as being more appropriate for women. It doesn't punish the family like a custodial sentence does. And it is miles cheaper. If someone works for 100 hours and that work is worth pounds 5 an hour, they are putting back pounds 500 into the community."

Next Thursday sees the launch of Payback, a charity that aims to reduce the prison population by increasing public confidence in community punishments. Director Marion Janner points out evidence from sources including Home Office research that the public would welcome wider use of community sanctions. "People might initially say 'Lock them up!' but as soon as thy are informed of other ways, they can see the sense of community-based punishments."

'After community service I want to go to college'

Becky, 25, is currently more than half-way through eight months of community service.

"I was addicted to heroin and kept getting into trouble for stealing. In the end I was arrested and charged with theft. I got a probation order but I was still on heroin and I went into detox, then relapsed. I didn't know how to get out of it - I thought about suicide, I'd cry every morning. Back to court, I was really scared about going into prison and withdrawing in there. You get so weak and wouldn't be able to stick up for yourself. And if you've been to prison you are labelled forever. I went to another detox programme and since then I've been clean for five months. When I went back to court I was given 100 hours' community service. My mum was over the moon that I didn't have to go to prison. She didn't feel so helpless. She blames herself sometimes for what's happened to me. I didn't know a lot about community service; I thought it was mostly decorating and gardening. To be honest I was glad it would give me something to do. On drugs you keep busy trotting about and after detox I needed something to fill my time. I work at a club for mentally handicapped people - I help them with puzzles, play bingo, cook meals. Helping people is really satisfying. I'm working towards an NVQ in Health and Safety, and when I finish my community service, I'm going to volunteer for work experience at the club, then go to college - I'd like to train in caring. If I'd gone to prison I wouldn't be thinking this way."

Becky's probation officer says: "I was very worried about Becky going to prison. Her health had been bad. She'd have been very vulnerable there. I knew she wanted to better herself but didn't know how to. After she'd had detox she was more positive. I felt it would be better for her not to be mixing with other people using drugs - as we all know drugs are available in prison. This scheme has worked so well for her and I really think it will be a turning point for her. It would be wonderful if others could have the same opportunity."