Leading article: The future of women's jails merits attention

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A radical call for the closure of women's prisons is the key recommendation of a report published today by the Women's Justice Taskforce, which calls for the savings to be reinvested in community-based alternatives to custody. The Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, should give the report careful consideration as he completes his White Paper on sentencing, which is to be published shortly and will look hard at ways to cut the total number of prisoners in Britain – at more than 85,000, the highest as a proportion of the population in Europe.

In the context of Mr Clarke's description of prison as a "revolving door", almost as an alternative welfare system, the statistics about women prisoners give cause for concern. It is disturbing that the number of women prisoners has risen threefold in Britain over the last 15 years, that so many – at least 70 per cent – have mental-health issues, that 40 per cent have no qualifications and that although they comprise a small fraction of the overall prison population – just over 4,200 out of 85,000 – they are responsible for almost half the annual recorded incidents of self-harm in prison. Most importantly, most women in jail are not guilty of violent offences, the largest categories having been put there for stealing or handling stolen goods or drugs offences.

No one is suggesting that women criminals should be singled out for special treatment and automatically exempted from jail terms. Rather, as an overwhelmingly non-violent category of prisoners, they should stand to benefit disproportionately from Mr Clarke's stated aim of reserving custodial sentences primarily for people who pose a physical danger to the public. It may satisfy some people's desire for punishment to see thieves and drug dealers also doing time, but the Justice Secretary is right to question what purpose is being served, if the only result is to confirm these offenders in lives of petty crime.

Mr Clarke has already set about an ambitious campaign for penal reform. Whether or not he decides that all women's prisons need to be closed, women prisoners are a category that deserve his close attention.

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