Last month, the government announced it expects the number of women in prison to rise by a whopping 40 per cent by 2025. In preparation, it is building 500 new prison cells, at a cost of £150 million, specifically for women. This is in spite of the government’s 2018 Female Offender Strategy, which it claims intends to reduce the number of women locked up.
The first duty of a government is the protection of our communities. When it comes to our justice system, surely the best way to do that is through a system that seeks to prevent crime and reoffending, by being tough on its causes. It may be a hackneyed phrase, but it’s one that stands the test of time.
Those who have committed serious crimes are rightly under lock and key. However, more than half of women convicted in 2019 were for low-level offences such as minor criminal damage and shoplifting. Eighty-two per cent of women sentenced were guilty of a non-violent offence, compared to 67 per cent of men. Almost half of women committed their offence to support someone else’s drug use, compared to 22 per cent of men.
The crimes that women are imprisoned for are often, research shows, closely linked to histories of trauma, abuse, and exploitation, with 60 per cent of women who’ve committed a crime, a victim of domestic abuse themselves. The imprisonment of women, who are much more likely to be primary carers, has a disproportionate impact on children who have committed no crimes. Six in 10 women in prison have dependent children, and sending women to prison dramatically increases the chances of their children ending up in the care system.
Short prison sentences are generally ineffective, and for women they create extreme mental and material disruption to life, broken family ties, lost jobs, homes, and healthcare relationships. Given these women only serve a few months inside, there is no time to provide appropriate support to break the cycle of reoffending. Community sentencing, however, works far more effectively to prevent reoffending and protect communities. Sentences in conjunction with specialist women’s centres, which repeated analysis for the government has shown are effective, would be even better.
The government’s own 2018 Female Offender Strategy recognises this: “There is persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences are less effective in reducing reoffending than community orders. Short sentences generate churn, which is a major driver of instability in our prisons and they do not provide sufficient time for rehabilitative activity. The impact on women, many of whom are sentenced for non-violent, low level but persistent offences, often for short periods of time, is particularly significant.”
The strategy also commits to reducing the number of women in prison, particularly those on short sentences. Why does the government have so little confidence in its plans that it is planning for failure, by creating increased prison places for women offenders? By pursuing policies that are more likely to result in women re-offending, the government is putting the public at risk.
Without a real change in policy, women will continue to be arrested when they are a victim of abuse and trauma, put into cells when they need healthcare, or given the kind of "short, sharp shock" prison sentence that those working in the system know does more harm than good.
A better way is possible. With the right policies and leadership in place, more women with drug problems could get the treatment they need. More women in abusive relationships could be supported to break free. More women can be held accountable for their actions, but in a way that empowers them to turn their lives around.
The cost of the 500 new prison places for women is £150 million, a staggering £300 thousand per space. We should not be wasting more money on ineffective short sentences, which the government admits won’t tackle re-offending.
Instead, why don’t we use the money to create smaller, safer rehabilitative facilities, which are able to focus relentlessly on the causes of women’s offending? Why don’t we treat those women whose drug addictions and mental health problems are the primary causes of their crime? Why don’t we fund women’s centres in every community, intervening early to prevent crime, and ensuring far fewer women develop problems so extreme they need to go into custody?
The government should reduce re-offending and the number of women in prison, as it set out in its own Female Offender Strategy, not increase both. Instead of once again planning for failure, it is time to plan for success.
Lyn Brown is the shadow minister for prisons and probation and the Labour MP for West Ham
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