Courts will be encouraged to hand more community sentences to women offenders – backed by curfews, tagging and unpaid work – in an attempt to reduce the female prison population.
The move, combined with treatment programmes for women with alcohol and drug problems, is designed to reduce the number of families that are broken up when a mother is jailed.
In an interview with The Independent, the Justice Minister, Helen Grant said: “There are some women who are bad and a risk to the public and society and they need to go to prison. But there are other women who are in the system, low-risk women, who would benefit greatly from punitive, credible punishments in the community.”
The measures follow a series of articles in The Independent last year which highlighted the plight of many women offenders often sentenced for relatively minor offences and the impact on their families. Almost 4,000 women are currently in jail, less than five per cent of the 88,250 prison population of England and Wales. They include Vicky Pryce, the ex-wife of former minister Chris Huhne, who last week received an eight-month sentence for perverting the course of justice.
Research has shown that female offenders are far more likely to have suffered abuse than their male counterparts and suffer much higher rates of self-harm and mental illness.
Ms Grant, who has responsibility for female offenders, will announce the establishment of a “powerful” advisory body including ministers and penal policy experts to draw up proposals for “robust” community sentences aimed at women and designed to divert them from jail. She said: “They will have punitive elements that may involve unpaid work or curfew or tagging, they really will challenge the women to change her way of life, to change her behaviour.
“Sentencers need to have a range of options…we want them to have choices that are credible with them and credible, of course, with the public.”
Fresh initiatives will also be developed for female-only and community-based treatment programmes for offenders. “If we are going to be serious about reducing offending and reoffending, we have got to address the reason why women offend in the first place…
“Women offenders are a highly vulnerable group, they commit crime because of that vulnerability and earlier failures to protect and support [them].”
Ms Grant will also promise new policies to ensure female inmates are housed as close as possible to their homes – a particular problem for the prison system as there are only two open prisons for women in the country.
Women are also to be given extra help after release to find a home, job, education, training or treatment.
The last major review of women’s prisons was conducted five years ago by the Labour peer Baroness Corston who called for all female-only jails to be closed by the year 2018 and replaced with smaller residential units. That proposal has never been implemented, but nearly all of her other suggestions have and the female prison population has edged down by 400 over that period.