Maria Jackson, a single mother-of-three, stole a lasagne from Marks and Spencer. Her youngest son was having a friend round for tea. That morning she had discovered that her benefits had been stopped. It was a mistake and they were quickly reinstated. But, temporarily without cash, she stole a lasagne – and some olives – so her 13-year-old would not be embarrassed when his friend arrived.
"I was desperate and literally had no money," she recalls. When Maria appeared in court she thought she was going to jail. It was her second offence. She had already been convicted for benefit fraud. Struggling to make ends meet, Maria had taken an extra job working night shifts without declaring it. She had done it for a year, over-claiming £40 a week.
But Maria, who is 49, was one of the lucky ones. Some 10,181 women were put behind bars in 2011 and the population of Britain's women's prisons has more than doubled over the past 15 years. Maria, however, was sentenced to attend something called the Inspire project, a ground-breaking initiative run by a women's centre near her home in Brighton.
Similar projects are being pioneered in Bradford, Glasgow, Calderdale, Worcester and London to find more effective ways of stopping women from offending than the traditional prison system affords. At the centres, women undergo a detailed individual assessment and then are given help with a range of problems including drug and alcohol misuse, parenting and budgeting skills, debt, housing and employment problems, anger management, and mental and physical health problems.
The aim is to address the root causes of crime more effectively – and more cost-effectively – than prison. The approach works. The average court-directed order at the Together Women Project in Bradford costs between £750 and £1,000 per woman per year – compared with the £56,415 a year it costs to keep a woman in jail. It has a compliance rate of 80 per cent. And it has reduced reoffending to less than 10 per cent compared to a national average of 62 per cent.
Funding for these centres grew out of the recommendations of a major report commissioned by the then Labour Government from Baroness Jean Corston in 2007 into how to improve the way the criminal justice system deals with women offenders. "The vast majority of women offenders are not dangerous," it said. Only those comparatively few women who are a danger to others need be locked up.
There was cross-party approval when it recommended fundamental reform which included developing a network of centres to support and supervise more and better punishments in the community. It also recommended improved sentencing and reconfiguring the prison system to close big women's prisons and replace them with smaller units better able to address the re-offending problem. They would also house mothers nearer to home so their children could visit more.
But although the Government accepted 40 of Corston's 43 recommendations it has stalled on implementing its biggest reforms. In the five years since the report "little progress has yet been made," says the umbrella group of 21 campaign groups in the Corston Independent Funders' Coalition.
"Everyone agrees we need fewer women in prison but nothing happens," says Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust. So how has this impasse come about?
Short sentences do not work
Why are more women in jail? Most of the rise comes from a significant increase in the severity of sentences. Just 10 per cent of women convicted of an indictable offence were sent to prison in 1996. A decade later the figure had risen to 15 per cent. "Not since the mid-19th century has our prison system held as many women as it does today," says the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick.
"We've seen an incredible ratcheting up of sentencing in Britain in the last 20 years," says the barrister and equality campaigner Helena Kennedy QC. "It began with Michael Howard [under the Conservatives] but then Labour joined in with a Dutch auction of who could be toughest. It has created a sense among magistrates and judges of what's expected of them as the press constantly berate judges for soft sentences. Despite the drawing up of sentencing guidelines there's been a tabloidisation of the whole sentencing process."
Some types of crime – particularly centred on drugs – have increased but, in the main, women are being jailed more often for comparatively minor offences like shoplifting and benefit fraud. They are what Corston called "low level 'nuisance' offending" often driven by the woman's need to provide for her family or to fund an addiction. A quarter of those jailed had no previous convictions.
Yet two thirds of the 10,181 women sentenced to prison in 2011 served sentences of six months or significantly less. In 2008, the most recent year for which full statistics are available, 3,338 women were sent to prison for three months or less. Another 986 women went inside for less than four weeks. And 139 got less than 10 days in jail, sometimes for offences like not paying their council tax.
Such short sentences are extraordinarily ineffective. They appease those sections of public opinion which demand retributive punishment. But they allow no time for serious work on reform and rehabilitation strategies. "A six-week sentence may involve two weeks detox, two weeks to stabilise medication and two weeks to prepare for release," admits civil servant Debra Baldwin. "So there is no time for prison to do much more."
And such short sentences are not subject to any form of statutory supervision on release. "Most women offenders leave prison still encumbered by the debt, mental health, or substance abuse problems with which they entered," says Nick Hardwick. "It is no surprise that the majority go on to re-offend."
Indeed the problem is getting worse. Reconviction rates have risen for women. Short sentences have the worst rate of recidivism; almost two-thirds of those who have served sentences of less than 12 months, are re-convicted within a year of release.
"If women are in for selling drugs or sex, many go back to it straight away when they get out," says Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust. "In the 1990s the reoffending rate was 40 per cent; now it's over 50 per cent. They get more dependent on the institution and less capable of coping outside." The idea that you have to be tougher on repeat offenders doesn't work with drugs, adds Helena Kennedy.
Intensive interventions make a demonstrable difference. In the Mother and Baby Units inside prisons, which can house a total of just 80 mothers at one time, the intensive skills tuition reduces reoffending. At Styal prison in Cheshire, Karen Moorcroft, project manager of the mother and baby unit run by Action for Children, says: "The rate of those who return to prison is around 52 per cent in the general prison population but just 15 per cent in the unit." The reoffending rate for women on sentences shorter than 12 months rises to 62 per cent.
The same is true with punishment in the community. In South Ayrshire, 37 per cent of women offenders breached their community service orders until the children's charity Barnardo's introduced parenting, truancy and debt counselling, along with housing and employment support. Breaches then dropped by almost two-thirds.
Many of the women in our prisons are, in Nick Hardwick's words, "repeat petty offenders, trapped in a cycle of deprivation, disadvantage, drug abuse and crime that the prison system is conspicuously failing to break". Very short prison sentences served little purpose except to further disrupt sometimes already chaotic lives. "Prisons – particularly as they are currently run," he says, "are simply the wrong place for so many of the distressed, damaged or disturbed women they hold."
How to cut the cost of prison
The Inspire project in Brighton works because it understands that. "We are working with people who have been though a lot of trauma in their own lives and quite often the women are very vulnerable," says Sara Hughes, an Inspire case worker.
"Obviously they have been convicted of a crime but often they are victims of crime themselves." Many also live in poor circumstances. "The project is really about helping people break out of that cycle of crime, substance misuse, domestic violence and homelessness. Sending them to prison would only compound their problems," she adds.
This is not special pleading. National statistics offer shocking confirmation. More than half of women in UK prisons have suffered domestic violence. One in three has experienced sexual abuse. One in four has been in care. Their levels of education are very low: 74 per cent left school at 16 or before. They have less than half the academic qualifications of the general population. Almost half have not worked in the past five years.
To all of that must be added extremely high levels of drug use: almost 60 per cent have used drugs daily in the six months before prison. Their physical and psychological health is poor. Almost half the incidents of self-harm in prison are by women, even though they constitute around five per cent of the total prison population. Evidence suggests that community sentences are far better than prison at enabling women to tackle the triggers of their criminal behaviour – such as substance abuse and mental health issues – while reducing the level of disruption caused to their families. Such problems, said Baroness Corston, "are all far more likely to be resolved through casework, support and treatment than by being incarcerated in prison."
The Brighton Women's Centre project is run by five charities which work closely with the probation service. The probation officers suggest to local magistrates and judges which women might benefit from Inspire as an alternative to prison.
To be considered the women must be classed as a low risk to the public.
And yet Inspire is not a soft option. "We have had people who have done prison a number of times and been unfazed by it," says Helen Race, a project case worker. "But when they have had to stop and reflect on their actions they have found this very challenging. Unlike prison it requires women to address the causes of their crime, the consequences of their actions, their role within the community and that it could change.
Mother-of-three Sue Martin, 41, was referred to Brighton women's centre after being convicted of benefit fraud. Sue, a nursery worker, had worked extra hours over the summer holidays without declaring the income. She was prosecuted two years ago for benefit fraud after receiving "a couple of hundred" extra pounds in family tax credits. She was terrified she would be separated by prison from her children, now aged 17, 15 and nine. Instead she was sentenced to pay back the money and attend sessions at Inspire.
"The project helped me resolve a lot of my problems. My whole personal life was pretty grim at the time. My partner was very abusive and I wanted to leave him," he says. She had taken the extra work to build a fund to run away. "Although the conviction was just awful it is still the best thing that has happened in the long term. A domestic violence case worker here helped me resolve a lot of things. We also worked on my parenting. My daughter was then 13 but because of the situation with my then-partner she had lost all respect for me and was getting into all sorts of risky behaviours. I think that if I'd been jailed my daughter would have ended up following suit. But this project gave me the tools to change my life."
After the Corston report, similar projects were funded by the Ministry of Justice across the country. But there are not enough of them, nor are they evenly spread geographically. Funding has been cut and the centres stagger from one year to the next financially. Next year funding of such centres will pass from central to local government, says Rachel Halford of the charity Women in Prison, and there is no guarantee that the cash will continue.
"Women offenders are generally a high priority with ministers," says Debra Baldwin, the senior civil servant responsible for women's prisons in the Ministry of Justice. "It is a priority to reduce reoffending among women."
One big problem, she says, "is that the money for these various services and initiatives come from different pots". The prison system, probation service, Department of Health and local authority social services departments are all involved. "So a cost in one is not offset by a commensurate saving in the same budget, but in a different budget entirely. That is one of the real challenges on where do you break the cycle of intergenerational crime."
What that means is that "civil servants are back in their comfort silos", says Baroness Corston, who tried to build links between different Government departments to prevent such budget myopia.
Such thinking is short-sighted, according to the New Economics Foundation which conducted a study of women and the criminal justice system. It concluded that imprisoning mothers for non-violent offences carries a massive cost to the state in extra benefits and unpaid taxes from the diminished life chances inflicted upon the children of prisoners. "It is difficult to understand what value is being delivered for the billions of pounds being spent in the criminal justice system," the report said.
By contrast there are huge benefits from investing in alternatives to prison. "Even small reductions in re-offending translate into significant savings," it said. Every pound invested in alternatives to prison generates £14 of additional benefits to society within 10 years through reduced unemployment, ill health and family breakdown. "If alternatives to prison were to achieve an additional reduction of just six per cent in reoffending, the state would recoup the investment required to achieve this in just one year."
Clearly the Government is alive to the question of cost-effectiveness. Earlier this year ministers published a consultation document which revealed that ministers want to introduce a "payment by results" system for running community sentences and want it to be working by 2015.
Prison reformers have mixed views on the idea. While welcoming the increased commitment to punishment in the community they have reservations about payment by results.
"You only get paid if people on your courses don't re-offend at all," says Roma Hooper of the campaign group Make Justice Work which gave evidence to the Commons Select Committee Inquiry on Women Offenders this month. "But that's not the only measure of success. Some offenders will stop, but others will do a much lower level type of crime, say shoplifting after conspiracy to supply drugs. That would be accounted as failure, though it would be an incremental success."
She adds: "It can take more than one go to stop people offending. If you don't recognise that you might be setting up the new system to fail. That could discredit the entire strategy of finding alternatives to prison in the community. The two years they have allowed for pilot schemes is not enough." The jury will be out on payment by results for some time yet.
The names of some of the offenders and their children have been changed
Tomorrow: Part 6 - What needs to be done