Mothers of young children should not be jailed unless they pose a risk to society, the Children's Commissioner for England says in an outspoken condemnation of sentencing policy.
Around 18,000 children were separated from their mothers by imprisonment every year, Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green said, adding that the high level of custodial terms was damaging the prospects of a new generation as well as being a burden on the taxpayer, who will have to foot the bill for the damaged children.
According to a report by 11 Million, the commissioner's organisation, many women are being imprisoned for minor offences at the expense of their children's wellbeing. The report, which will be published tomorrow to coincide with a debate in the House of Lords on the plight of women in prison, concluded that the treatment of mothers by the judicial system needed a radical overhaul.
Sir Al said: "Nobody in their right mind would think it is in a child's best interest to be born in prison or spend their early years there. There is a societal issue at stake about the best way to deal with women offenders. There is a need to achieve a balance between the use of prison to address crime and keep society safe and, on the other hand, to do whatever is best for highly vulnerable women in view of their role in bringing up the next generation."
Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons and now an independent peer, will call for the establishment of a women's justice board, warning that the prison system was "designed by men for men" and is failing women prisoners.
There are just over 80,000 prisoners in UK jails, 4,300 of whom are women. Around a third of women prisoners have children under five. Some children are adopted, others are cared for by their father or another relative and some will be placed in care until their mother is released, or sometimes longer.
But children of jailed mothers more likely to be convicted of a crime and to serve time on probation than other children. They are also three times more likely to display antisocial behaviour and suffer mental health problems in later life.
Very few of the women had committed offences that made them a danger to society, the report said. Women were being jailed unnecessarily for minor offences, doing great damage to their children.
The report called for mothers who commit non-violent crimes to be allowed to serve their sentence in a community-based unit .
It recommended that probation reports assess the impact on a female offender's children before their mother is sentenced, and called for government research into the impact on children of being separated from their mothers.
Research suggests babies can suffer severe psychological damage if they are separated from their mothers between the age of six months and four years.
Behind bars: the figures
18,000: The number of children who are separated from their mothers by imprisonment each year.
9: The percentage of children who are cared for by their fathers while their mothers are in prison.
5: The percentage of women prisoners whose children remain in their own home once their mother has been sentenced.
1 in 3 Women prisoners are single parents.
66: The percentage of women in prison who have dependent children under 18.
1 in 2: Women in custody have suffered from domestic violence.
1 in 3: Women in custody have suffered sexual abuse.
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