New law will send women to jail needlessly, peers warn

Thousands of women will be sent to jail needlessly if new criminal justice legislation is allowed into law in its current form, a group of cross-party peers warn this weekend ahead of a vote in the House of Lords.

A new Ministry of Justice bill on sentencing must be changed radically to take account of women, they say, if the Government is to reduce the growing number of women being given custodial sentences. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishing Offenders Bill (LASPO), which currently contains no reference to women offenders in the entire document, will shepherd more women into a prison system designed for men, critics claim.

More than four thousand women, or five per cent of the prison population, are currently held behind bars - a number which has increased by nearly a third in the last decade. But the Government's 'gender blind' approach to offenders mean women are being sent into a justice system that is failing them, according to the group of peers, who stress that most of them should not be going to prison at all.

At least two new clauses to the bill will be tabled in the House of Lords tomorrow [Monday], aimed at improving leadership and accountability for women in the justice system. They will include a proposal to establish a Women's Justice Commission and a plan to set up a national cross-departmental strategy on women offenders, which would produce an annual report to Parliament. The Scottish Executive agreed to set up a Commission with a view to reduce women offenders last year, when it emerged that the female prison population north of the border had doubled in the last decade.

Baroness Jean Corston, Labour peer and author of the Corston Review – a 2007 report into vulnerable women in the criminal justice system, said it is "extraordinary" that the coalition put nothing in the LASPO bill about women, while disbanding the cross-departmental criminal justice women's unit in Parliament. "It shows the Government's insensitivity in relation to women," she said. "If we treat people all the same in the prison system, that means we treat everyone as if they were men. It is blindingly obvious to me that most of these women should not be going to prison."

Critics of the current proposed legislation stressed that most women serve short sentences for less serious offences – almost two thirds of all women sentenced to custody between 2010 and 2011 were serving six months or less and over a third were serving sentences for theft and handling stolen goods, according to Ministry of Justice figures. Up to 25 per cent of new female prisoners were in jail last year for breaching community orders or the terms of their release licenses.

Former chief inspector of prisons for England and Wales and crossbench peer, Lord Ramsbotham told the IoS that the current prison system was "broken". "If we are going to have proper treatment and conditions for women in the justice system, someone must be accountable and responsible for making that happen; there is nobody in charge at the moment," he said. "If this Government wants a 'rehabilitation revolution'... then the revolution affecting women must be designed in a way that is appropriate to them."

The proposed amendments draw inspiration from the Corston review, which recommended replacing existing women's prisons with small custodial centres around the country and providing community-based alternatives to custody. Each year almost 18,000 children are separated from their mother by imprisonment and around one third of women lose their homes, according to the Prison Reform Trust.

More than "15.6m was invested by the Labour Government in 2009 in community provision for women offenders, with more than "10m awarded to women's centres across the country. The coalition has provided a one-off funding package of "3.2m to keep all but three centres running this year and a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said they are "determined to tackle offending among women."

"The justice system must represent both men and women fairly but we are committed to addressing the particular needs of women to ensure fair treatment through the system, and effective rehabilitation for women who offend," the spokesperson said.

Baroness Vivien Stern, a crossbench Peer and senior research fellow at the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, London, said women have been experiencing "injustice" and "inequality" in the prison system for decades. "The bill is a great opportunity to have a good discussion about it and hold people to account, but it doesn't always come down to legislation - it is about whether someone is actually going to tackle the situation or not."

The cost of a women's prison place is higher than a man's at an average of "56,415 per year. By contrast, an intensive community order could cost up to "15,000, according to the Prison Reform Trust. Director Juliet Lyon called the absence of women-focused policy in the bill, a "glaring omission in law and government oversight."

Suggested Topics
News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
News
people
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
art

The Sistine Chapel is set to be illuminated with thousands of LEDs

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Sport
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?