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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?