Leading article: The young victims of a system in need of reform

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If Britain's overcrowded prisons are damaging the mental health and future employment prospects of male prisoners, this is doubly the case for females who fall foul of the criminal justice system. The 4,321 female prisoners in England and Wales are at greater risk of suicide than their male peers. Proportionately, more women prisoners suffer from mental illness too.

But perhaps the greatest damage their incarceration inflicts is on their children. Sixty per cent of women in prisons are mothers. Half of these are lone parents. This means some 18,000 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment each year. Some are cared for by relatives, or friends. Many are taken into care by the social services.

The criminal justice system is unduly harsh on mothers in numerous ways. They are twice as likely as men to be held more than 50 miles from their home. And since female offenders tend to commit less serious crimes than men, they are usually given shorter sentences. But a short sentence for a young mother can be just as bad as a longer sentence for a single man because it entails a lack of contact with her child.

On top of this, the prison infrastructure is plainly inadequate for dealing with female prisoners. There are eight Mother and Baby Units in prisons in the UK, where mothers are allowed to keep their very young children with them while they serve their sentences. But the units are never full. This is partly due to the fact that female prisoners are often unaware of them. It is also because of their location. If female prisoners know about them, they are often faced with an invidious choice of moving to a distant area where they can be with their youngest child, or nearer home to maintain contact with their older children and family. Many choose to be nearer home.

It is a failing system. Even those unmoved by the harm that prison inflicts on young mothers themselves must concede that it is hardly in society's interests for them to be separated from the children. The evidence suggests that children of a jailed mother are considerably more likely to fall into a life of criminality. There is also the cost imposed on the state of caring for a child to consider. All the major political parties agree that children are better off cared for within family units. So why do they tolerate a criminal justice system that breaks up so many families unnecessarily?

The Children's Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, argues today that unless female prisoners pose a clear danger to other members of the public they should be given community punishments. This is sensible. Incarceration should be the last resort. The Government is spending some £9m on community initiatives as an alternative to prison for women. But a good deal more than this is needed. For instance, judges should be directed to use community sentences and drug treatment orders as the first option when female offenders come before them. This is not the soft option, it is the effective option. The female reoffending rate is substantially lower after a community sentence.

In a sense, the problem of children and mothers being unduly penalised is a symptom of a wider crisis in the criminal justice system. The female prison population has risen by 67 per cent in the past decade, despite the fact that the female crime rate has shown only a modest increase in that time. The same malign social and political pressures for punishment through incarceration has led to a huge increase in male prisoners. The entire system needs reform. But ending the cruel and counter-productive practice of separating mothers and their children is the right place for our politicians to begin.

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