David Blunkett's recipe: wrecked lives, wasted money and higher crime

Welcome to a country where the Government still dances to a Tory tune on crime

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Don't worry about crime. David Blunkett is looking after us. Thanks to him, more evil bitches are being snatched from their children and slammed into jail cells than ever before. The law and order debate in Britain is now so warped that we are encouraged to think in these terms. Our Labour Government brags about increasing the number of women in jail by 151 per cent over the past decade, and Blunkett declares he will jail more and more "until they get the message".

Don't worry about crime. David Blunkett is looking after us. Thanks to him, more evil bitches are being snatched from their children and slammed into jail cells than ever before. The law and order debate in Britain is now so warped that we are encouraged to think in these terms. Our Labour Government brags about increasing the number of women in jail by 151 per cent over the past decade, and Blunkett declares he will jail more and more "until they get the message".

So many women - or "witches", as female criminals are routinely described by our press - are now stuffed into our prisons that the Government is currently building a whole new jail for them (cost to you: £60m). You might expect that such a radical shift in government policy would be based on a careful study of the evidence. If our leaders are going to take the drastic step of trebling the number of female prisoners and depriving 17,000 children annually of their mums, it must be because of a huge increase in violence from women. And there must be fairly persuasive evidence that jail sentences will slash crime rates - right?

Wrong; 40 per cent of all women imprisoned last year were sent down for shoplifting - more than for all the violent offences put together. Another 30 per cent were banged up for drug offences. Only a small minority of female prisoners have been involved in violent crime or even burglary.

We are building a new prison - and spending £27,000 per woman per year - so we can lock up more women for pilfering from shops. For each prisoner, you could have a new nurse in your local casualty department. Welcome to a country where the Government still dances to a Tory tune on crime.

And it's not as if all this spending even reduces the odds of you being a victim of crime. Six out of 10 women prisoners reoffend within two years of their release - and those are just the ones who get caught. A well-resourced prison system dealing with a few very serious offenders would be able to help turn lives around; but our heaving, groaning jails are making crime worse.

Only one thing outweighs the colossal financial cost of this political failure. It's the human cost. If you look beyond the dehumanising stereotypes to the hard facts, it emerges that females in jail are not conniving slags. They are most often abused women who turned to crime in desperation. The Government's Social Exclusion Unit conducted an extensive study of women prisoners in 2002. It found that a quarter of them had been in care as children; half had been beaten by their partners; 40 per cent had dropped out of schooling before the age of 16; and 70 per cent had been diagnosed with two or more mental disorders.

A welfare co-ordinator with the charity Women in Prison describes a typical woman jailed in Britain today. "I first met Anna while she was on remand in HMP Holloway. At our first meeting she was very depressed and felt her life was in a mess. A long history of drug misuse had eventually led to her being in Holloway. She had faced problems from an early age because her grandfather was schizophrenic and she grew up terrified of his unpredictability. She formed few friendships at school, and she was bullied because of her grandfather's illness and because her family couldn't afford new clothes. She became rebellious and sullen, and the adults in her life gave up on her." She continues: "Her story at this point becomes so typical it is almost a cliché. While she was presenting an angry and abrasive front she was being systematically sexually abused by her grandfather. Like many children in this situation she felt she was at blame for this situation. She became addicted to crack cocaine, and miscarried at 16. She became even more dependent on drugs, and she eventually received an 18-month sentence for drug offences."

These are the witches Michael Howard and David Blunkett have sent down. What tough guys. As jails are forced to take more and more people without any extra cash, they have to cut back on education and rehab. Overcrowding makes prison even less effective and even more cruel; more Annas are locked away for no purpose. Fourteen women killed themselves in prison last year. Several thousand slashed at their own bodies. Anna is atypical in only one respect. At least - unlike two thirds of female prisoners - she does not have kids. Many mothers arrive in prison distraught, explaining that there is nobody to pick up their kids from school. Living chaotic lives, in denial about the possibility of custody, their children are punished even more for their mothers' shoplifting or drug addiction.

Many of these women cannot see their children for the entire length of their sentence because they are sent to distant jails - more than a quarter are held more than 100 miles from their children's hometown. Thanks to David Blunkett's failing policies, 6,000 children could not see their mum this Mother's Day; all the research shows that they are now far more likely to fall into a life of crime themselves.

Perhaps the cruellest twist of all is that there are far cheaper, more effective ways of punishing female criminals that the Government could turn to at any moment. For example, a fascinating initiative called the Milton Keynes Retail Theft Initiative was launched in 1994. Shoplifters are required to take part in an extensive course that requires them to meet shop-owners who are victims of theft, confront the reasons why they steal, and teaches them skills to move into work and resist peer pressure. They have therapists they can contact when they feel they are about to reoffend.

You can hear Richard Littlejohn and David Davis sneering already at the "social workers" and "bleeding hearts" behind this but - big news - the plan works beyond the wildest dreams of its creators. Reconviction rates - confirmed by independent studies - fell to just 3 per cent. If you want to cut crime - and save money - invest in programmes that analyse offending behaviour and help to re-educate people who have often known no other life.

Of course a hardcore minority will continue to offend and they will have to be given stringent community sentences (Soft? Try digging a ditch unpaid for 100 hours) or, eventually, jailed. But the Blunkettian nervous twitch that uses prison as a first resort is a recipe for wrecked lives, squandered cash and higher crime. Now look again at the "tough" rantings of the right. Do they offer facts and figures - programmes that work - or do they offer a tidal wave of "common sense"?

The Government has shown that sometimes it is prepared to forsake right-wing praise for its "toughness" to choose sensible, effective policies. It has, for example, massively increased the prescription of methadone and it is planning to increase the prescription of heroin - policies that cut burglary rates and save the lives of addicts. Why can't it be as brave and as smart when it comes to prisons? Who is it making policy for - know-nothing right-wing journalists who snarl at poor women from air-conditioned offices in Kensington, or the Real Britain where we need serious crime policies?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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