Women hit hardest by 'shameful' short prison sentences, new figures reveal

'A few weeks in prison are enough to lose your home, children and job and cause harm to mental health'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 26 December 2017 22:53 GMT
Almost 300 women were sent to prison for under two weeks last year
Almost 300 women were sent to prison for under two weeks last year (PA)

Women have been disproportionately hit with prison sentences of less than one month, newly released figures reveal, leading campaigners to condemn the “ridiculous overuse” of incarceration for minor offences.

One in four women sent to prison last year – more than 1,500 – were sentenced to 30 days or less, with almost 300 of them put behind bars for under two weeks.

Sentencing rules mean non-violent prisoners are typically released after half of that time, which means hundreds of women are in prison for one week or even less.

Campaigners said women were hit the hardest because they are more likely to be carers. They said that even short sentences put them at risk of losing their children.

“Women are still being sent to prison for not paying TV licence or council tax,” said Kate Paradine, the chief executive of Women in Prison, which is campaigning to halve the number of women behind bars by 2020.

“A few weeks in prison are enough to lose your home, children and job and cause harm to mental health. Because women are often primary carers, when a mother is sent to prison, in nine out of 10 cases her children will have to leave their home to go into the care system or to live with relatives.”

Until now, the Ministry of Justice has only released figures for prisoners jailed for under three months in prison – obscuring the number serving ultra-short sentences.

Now a written parliamentary answer to a question asked by the Labour Party has revealed those statistics. They show that one in four women – and one in six men – jailed in 2016 were imprisoned for under one month.

The figures also show that 36 per cent of prisoners were sentenced to less than three months, a proportion rising to 55 per cent of women.

It is unclear how many of those women were mothers or cared-for children.

Ms Paradine warned that women’s centres and other community alternatives to custody “face a funding crisis that is getting worse”.

“We and many others believe it is possible to half the female prison population of around 4,000 to 2,020 by 2020, but we must act now,” she said.

Labour said the practice was also a significant waste of money, which could be spent on cheaper women’s centres and community schemes that “are better at reducing reoffending”.

Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon said: “The overwhelming majority of women jailed have committed a non-violent offence, and half are in prison for theft.

“If prison is about rehabilitation as well as punishment, what is the point of so many women serving just a few weeks in jail?”

Each prison place cost £47,000 a year, Mr Burgon added, places which he said should be kept for “those who really should be there”.

The Ministry of Justice declined to respond to the figures, but pointed The Independent to a recent admission, by an under-secretary of state for the department, that “short sentencing is not delivering the goods”.

Phillip Lee told MPs, on 5 December, that “our strategy is that if we can keep people out of custody, we will”.

He said: “I understand and recognise that short sentencing is not delivering the goods, and I also recognise that a number of women are victims themselves.”

But he added: “Ultimately, the women’s justice estate is about security for the wider public – to keep people who have done things wrong away from the public – and reducing crime in the longer term by working better with the women concerned.”

England and Wales have recently fallen behind Scotland in the use of non-custodial sentences, with a dramatic decline south of the border.

The Centre for Justice Innovation revealed a 24 per cent fall in the number of community sentences over the past decade – despite evidence that they reduce reoffending.

It partly blamed local court closures and privatisation of the probation service, which had reduced magistrates and judges’ confidence in – and knowledge of – alternatives to custody.

In contrast, in Scotland, there had been an 18 per cent increase in non-prison sentences, with a new system of community payback orders achieving a far lower reconviction rate.

Women in Prison is leading the 2020 Ambition to reduce the women’s prison population to no more than 2,020 by 2020 – roughly half the current total.

It said more than half of women in prison have been victims of domestic or sexual violence, half have experienced abuse or neglect as a child and a third grew up in care.

Meanwhile, 84 per cent of women’s prison sentences are for non-violent offences, such as theft, that are “often related to poverty and addiction”.

Most women serving short prison sentences are “back in prison within a year”, the organisation said.

In 2013, Lord Neuberger, then president of the Supreme Court, criticised short sentences for being “disruptive” to the prisoner’s job and family life.

Lord Neuberger said a visit to Holloway, the women’s prison, had made him rethink his view that the “clang of the prison gates” always had benefits.

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