The Howard League for Penal Reform has just published the results of an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System into why, despite the overwhelming evidence in favour of community support, high numbers of women are still being sent to prison – and what can be done about this.
What is already known
The demographics of female imprisonment are well known and researched. Practitioners, policy-makers,
academics and politicians recognise that women who become tangled up in the criminal justice system are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in society. These women have experienced poverty, mental ill health, addiction, abuse and trauma. Almost half of women in prison report having suffered domestic violence and more than half report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood. It is now appreciated that prison makes things worse, not better, for women. Women do not receive adequate support for their mental health needs while in prison and the consequences of this can be catastrophic.
Recent statements from ministers have emphasised that short sentences are known to be less effective at preventing reoffending than community sentences. This is of particular relevance to women, who tend to serve shorter sentences than men.
Despite this body of evidence, the number of community orders given to women was down by 9% in the first quarter of 2018 compared with the same period in 2017. There were 4,836 sentenced first receptions of women into prison in 2017, reflecting almost no change from the previous two years and at the end of June 2018 there were 3,803 women in prison.
The report highlights three factors driving the continued sentencing of women to prison.
1: The problems facing probation
The Transforming Rehabilitation reforms split the probation service at the point of service delivery and created 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies to supervise low and medium risk offenders. CRCs’ performance has been consistently criticised by the probation inspectorate and it was announced in July that that CRC contracts would be terminated early. The inquiry found that the failure of TR has undermined the confidence of
magistrates in community sentences and reduced the range of options open to them when sentencing women.
2: Knowledge gaps
The inquiry unearthed three ‘knowledge gaps’.
First, the inquiry heard that magistrates sometimes lack knowledge about the circumstances of women’s lives and the likely impact of prison on an individual. Most court reports are now delivered on the day and can lack crucial details. When detailed reports are prepared, pressures on the women’s sector often mean that voluntary sector organisations supporting women do not have the time to contribute to them. Misconceptions and implicit bias can fill this knowledge gap. The inquiry heard that some magistrates inaccurately regard prisons as ‘places of safety’. The lack of ethnic and socio-economic diversity in the magistracy leaves open the potential for damaging bias where gender intersects with other factors such as ethnicity, class and religion. Training could address this, but budgets have been cut and magistrates are not always aware of relevant resources developed by the charity sector or current evidence and research.
Second, the inquiry heard that sentencers lack knowledge about women-specific services such as women’s centres in their local area, which lowers their confidence in community sentences.
Third, there are knowledge gaps among probation staff. The inquiry heard that some CRC staff do not seem to understand why the services of organisations commissioned by the CRC are necessary to meet the unique needs of women, so can be reluctant to refer women to these organisations.
3: Failure to regard children’s rights
Women who offend are often the primary or sole carers for children and custodial sentences can have a very negative impact on these children. The inquiry heard about the range of duties on the court to consider dependent children. The United Nations Bangkok Rules specify that the impact of a sentence on a woman’s children should be taken into account in sentencing if a woman is a primary or sole carer. Every sentencing guideline now includes being a primary/sole carer as a potential mitigating factor. Case law has established that the impact on a child may be what ‘tips the scales’ such that a proportionate sentence becomes disproportionate.
However, research has shown that the weight given to dependents as a mitigating factor, and the understanding of the relevant guidelines and case law, is extremely varied among crown court judges. Given the pressures on magistrates’ courts it seems highly likely that at least the same variability pervades decisions in magistrates’ courts too. Sentencers are empowered to diverge from guidelines where it is in the interests of justice to do so. The exercising of this discretion is of particular relevance in the cases of women who offend repeatedly. The inquiry heard that magistrates sometimes feel they have no choice but custody when faced with a woman with a history of repeat offending. Yet, research has shown that short sentences are particularly ineffective at reducing reoffending for exactly these ‘prolific offenders’.
The inquiry report makes three main recommendations:
- The APPG recommends that custodial sentences of less than 12 months are abolished for women.
- In re-designing TR, the MoJ should ensure there is ring-fenced funding specifically for women’s services.
- To address the knowledge gaps identified, there should be women’s champions in the National Probation Service to write women’s court reports. Report-writers should ask women what support they need and the court should take these answers seriously, respecting women’s understanding of their situation. Reports should set out relevant details of women’s experiences of abusive relationships, mental health issues and caring responsibilities, as well as specifying in very practical terms what the impact of a particular sentence would be on a woman’s housing, job and children. This would help to reduce the risk of sentence inflation happening with community sentences.