The number of women in prison is growing much faster than the number of men despite their crimes often being less serious, research revealed today.
Carol Hedderman, professor of criminology at the University of Leicester, said looking at the growing number of women in jail could eventually help lower the prison population overall.
Her paper, based on official Government statistics, is due to be presented at a 2010 British Society of Criminology conference at the university.
It will argue more radical changes are needed to reduce the number of women going to prison, and cut overall inmate numbers.
She said: "Women offenders are dealt with badly because the criminal justice system is geared to dealing with men.
"They have been swept up in the move to ever toughening sentences and moves to ameliorate this have been weak and ineffective."
Prof Hedderman, who previously worked in the Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate and has also served on the Parole Board, said between 1997 and 2008 the male prison population had risen by 35%, whereas the number of women in jail had gone up by 68%.
"One of the things people always say is women only constitute a tiny proportion of the prison population which is true, but the question is why has it gone up so much," she said.
"There is a lot of talk about girls being more like ladettes, is it because girls have become more violent?
"It's true that the number of arrests for violence has gone up a bit, but the number of men arrested for violence has gone up four times so that doesn't necessarily explain it.
"Most of the women who come into the criminal justice system are being dealt with pre-court.
"Even when they come to court many are still being dealt with for much more trivial matters which again raises the question of why their population is going up."
She said when women are convicted 94% are for minor offences, compared to 76% of men.
"We don't fully understand that but one of the things we do know is they are being swallowed up in the generally more punitive emphasis," she said.
"I think my bottom line is if you really want to reduce the prison population start with women."
She said women often served short sentences for lesser offences, which meant prison was more disruptive for them.
In 2008 the average length of sentence for women convicted of indictable offences was 10.7 months while for men it was 16.6 months, she said.
In the same year, 54% of sentenced men received less than six months compared with 64% of sentenced women.
"That means if you go into prison as a woman you won't be there long enough for anything to be done with you and you won't be supervised after," she said.
"What prison has done is maximise the disruption, losing your job, your children going into care, losing your accommodation. The impact is much worse.
"It's not that I'm arguing women shouldn't go to prison for the same offence - if they have done something as serious as a man they should be punished the same.
"But quite often what you find is what they are being sent to prison for is more trivial, because there is not much else out there to help them."
She said Labour had started supporting programmes for women offenders but she feared this would not continue with the coalition Government.
"My concern is that the new Government is likely to cut this because it's small amounts of money and there aren't many people out there campaigning for women offenders," she said.
"There's a whole pecking order of people you think of first. They are an unsympathetic group.
"Women offenders are basically the bottom of the socially-excluded heap."Reuse content