Number of women remanded up by 21%
The Howard League for Penal Reform today published a new briefing showing it is time to rethink remand for women. The briefing, Reset: Rethinking remand for women, highlights the need for remand decision-making to be rethought and reformed to enable judges and magistrates to take a distinct approach to women.
It shows how thousands of women are being sent to prison unnecessarily, damaging them and their families, including the children who depend on them, and piling more pressure on prisons and the wider criminal justice system.
The charity argues that the vast majority of women awaiting trial or sentence could safely be released on bail. However, the number of women being held in prison on remand has been growing. At the end of 2019, the number of remanded women in prison in England and Wales was 21 per cent higher than at the end of the previous year.
Last year, prisons recorded almost 2,000 incidents of self-injury by women on remand – the highest number for eight years. Although a person can only be held in police custody if they have been assessed as fit to be detained, there is no such requirement for those being remanded to prison.
The figures indicate that measures introduced eight years ago, to reduce the use of remand, are not working. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 restricted the circumstances in which bail could be refused, but this has not succeeded in preventing unnecessary remands of women.
Disproportionate use of remand for women
Women commit fewer and less violent offences than men according to official MoJ data and the Howard League argues that the overwhelming majority of women could be safely managed in the community whilst they await trial or sentence.
Yet women on remand are over-represented in the prison system. As a snapshot, in 2019, a staggering 46 per cent of women entering prison did so on remand. Yet almost 9 in 10 women on remand are judged to present a low to medium risk of serious harm. The most common offence for which women are remanded to prison is theft – women were remanded into custody for theft 792 times in 2019.
In 2012, in response to concerns about the overuse of remand, particularly in less serious cases, Parliament restricted the circumstances in which bail could be refused (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012). Where a person faces an offence for which they could be sent to prison, the court’s powers to remand a person are very significantly reduced if there is no ‘real prospect’ that a prison sentence would be imposed on conviction.
However, this has not succeeded in preventing unnecessary remands of women. In 2019, 65 per cent of women remanded into prison and subsequently dealt with by the magistrates’ courts did not go on to receive an immediate prison sentence. The position is better in the crown court, but even there 40 per cent of women remanded to prison in 2019 did not subsequently receive an immediate custodial sentence.
This overuse of remand to prison is more pronounced for Black, Asian and minority ethnic women. This
is particularly the case in magistrates’ courts where, in 2019, 59 per cent of white women remanded in custody did not go on to receive an immediate prison sentence, compared with 73 per cent of Black women, 79 per cent of Asian women, and 78 per cent of women in the ‘Chinese and other’ group. The Lammy Review (recommendation 11) has invited more detailed examination of magistrates’ decision-making in relation to remand decisions for Black, Asian and minority ethnic women.
The situation in the crown courts has recently worsened as well. Despite the overall drop in the number of cases coming before the courts, the number of women being remanded to prison in crown courts has risen over the last year. For all women appearing in the crown court there was a six per cent rise in the
number of remands in 2019 in comparison with 2018. However, the situation is even more marked for ethnic minority women – in 2018, 199 Black, Asian and minority ethnic women were remanded into custody in the crown court. In 2019 that figure rose 38 per cent to 275.
The impact of remand
Remand into prison can be particularly gruelling for women, as they cope with the uncertainty of
awaiting trial, the sudden separation from family and other networks, and the challenge of adjusting
to a new regime. Difficulties coping with remand in custody are reflected in the growing number
of incidents of self-injury by women on remand – in 2019 there were 1917 such incidents, the
highest number in a year since 2011.
A person can only be held in police custody if he or she has been assessed as fit to be detained. But there is no such requirement for those being remanded to prison. Women entering prison often have pressing health needs. As an illustration, the most recent inspection report for Styal Prison notes: ‘95% of women said that they had problems on arrival. 53% said they had a problem with illicit drugs on arrival and 27%
had an alcohol problem. 72% reported having a mental health problem’. Yet prisons routinely receive very little information about the women they receive on remand to enable them to support their particular needs.
More information and scrutiny needed
Remand to prison can have a devastating impact on families. Most remands happen immediately following arrest and, in these circumstances, women brought directly from the police cells to court routinely have no opportunity to make arrangements for any children or dependants they care for.
As remand can last several weeks or even months, a woman can lose her job and her home and there is a real risk that her children will be taken into care. Without knowing when she will be released, it is difficult to plan ahead, particularly when trying to secure somewhere to live.
Women who have been remanded but go on to be acquitted or sentenced to a community order do not receive compensation. Nor do they receive a discharge grant or travel warrant to support them to return home safely on release.
The high number of remands also puts more pressure on prisons, which must deal with the ‘churn’ of women moving in and out through their gates. Significant resources are needed to process their reception, induction and release, and it can prevent prison staff from having time to work constructively with the sentenced women in their care.
The briefing states that better oversight is needed to scrutinise remand decisions and identify poor practice. It recommends more guidance and training for judges and lawyers, as recent research has found that the law at remand hearings may not be fully understood by all who have to apply it.
The briefing also recommends that more information about a woman’s circumstances should be provided at her remand hearing. In a sentencing hearing, if a judge or magistrate is considering imprisonment, they must obtain a pre-sentence report unless it is considered unnecessary; in remand hearings there is no requirement to obtain a comparable report.
Most remand hearings last less than five minutes, and lawyers representing women frequently have to prepare their submissions at extremely short notice, with little time to speak to their client.
The Howard League is working for significant legislative and practice reform to ensure that women are only remanded to prison in the most exceptional and serious cases.
As the courts begin to return to normal following the lockdown, the need for vigilance to reduce the number of people entering the prison system remains critical. The charity has written to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and the Director of Public Prosecutions to encourage anxious scrutiny of all decisions in relation to remand and prosecution.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.