Fury over 'savage' prison sentences for pregnant girls

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The Independent Online

The Home Secretary has been asked to look into the cases of two pregnant gypsy girls, aged 13 and 14, who have been locked up by British courts for minor theft offences.

The Home Secretary has been asked to look into the cases of two pregnant gypsy girls, aged 13 and 14, who have been locked up by British courts for minor theft offences.

Shocked prison reformers have been outraged by a succession of "savage" sentences given to expectant teenagers and girls with young babies from Roma communities.

The two pregnant girls were sent to secure units last week. Two other girls, both believed to be 16, have recently left custody after being separated from their babies for two months.

The punishments meted out by London courts have alarmed workers in the local authority-run secure units where the girls - who are all understood to come from Bosnia - are being held. The pregnant girls are said to be unable to communicate with other inmates and members of staff.

Frances Crook, the director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "These are young girls. Instead of locking them up, the courts ought to be looking at taking them into care and protection."

Secure local authority units, which cater for youngsters aged 12 to 18 and can cost £3,000-a-week per place, can be violent places that could jeopardise a pregnancy, she said.

The girl aged 13 is now being held in Hampshire, while the 14-year-old is in a unit in West London. Another gypsy girl, aged 15, who was locked up last week, is being held in a unit in Northamptonshire. All the girls will remain in custody for two months.

The two older Roma girls with children were released after being separated from their babies. One, who has told British authorities that she became pregnant after being raped by a soldier in Bosnia, spent her two-month sentence pining for her baby, with whom she is now reunited.

The convictions follow a wave of media publicity linking Roma asylum-seekers to organised begging and pickpocketing.

A group of Bosnian men are believed to be running a Fagin-type network of child pickpockets, some under the age of 10. The thieves operate in central London, often preying on women.

The girls who have been locked up have all been sentenced under the Government's new Detention and Training Orders, which require offenders to serve half of their sentence in custody and the remainder in the community.

Ms Crook, who has complained to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, about the women's treatment, said she believed such sentences were inappropriate for theft cases. "Having your purse stolen is horrible," she said. "I've had it done to me. But it's not the same as burglary or a crime of violence and it should not warrant custody."

Tina Hyder, of Save the Children, said: "Whatever these young women have done, they are children first and foremost and deserve protection."

Critics claim the girls should have been subjected to one of the many community punishments now available to the courts, such as the Reparation Order that requires them to do work in the community commensurate with the cost of their crime.

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