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."

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