On Tuesday 8 November 2016, Halsbury’s Law Exchange (HLE) hosted a panel discussion on the urgent topic of: “Women in Prison: is the justice system fit for purpose?” In the lead up to the panel discussion, Felicity Gerry QC and Lyndon Harris co-authored a discussion paper on this vital question, available to read in full here.
The evening commenced with a brief introduction from Felicity Gerry GC who welcomed the panel and briefly summarised her paper. The nail bar explanation? We must get used to prosecuting fewer women and sending fewer women to prison because they do not actually belong there and don’t deserve the level of punishment. The tricky part is what to do about it.
Joshua Rozenberg QC chaired the panel discussion and begun the evening by introducing the distinguished panellists:
The Rt Hon. the Lord Beith, House of Lords
John Cooper QC, 25 Bedford Row
Jenny Earle, Prison Reform Trust
Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, House of Lords, Chair of Justice
Vicky Pryce, Economist and Business Consultant
The discussion was wide-ranging, highly informed and we have written an article to capture, as best possible, the ideas, thoughts and arguments of the evening (access here). In addition, there was a high level of social media engagement throughout the course of the evening, and we have captured some of the Twitter discussion, which is available in here (links to a PDF).
Five Key Points
It is important for readers to look at Felicity Gerry QC and Lyndon Harris’s paper, as that contains a set of technical and precise recommendations for reform. Outlined below, are six key takeaways that arose from the panel discussion and the following question and answer session.
A whole systems approach
Jenny Earle posited the need for a ‘whole systems’ approach to tackling the need to reform the treatment of women by the criminal justice system. Following the success seen in recent years relating to youth custody, there was a call to establish a body which brings together: government, non-government, police, lawyers, policy experts, related stakeholders and many more. A ‘Woman’s Justice Board’, which brings together experts to consider this central issue in an evidence-based manner.
The answer to the challenge of women in prison does not just rely on change in the penal and court systems. Policing is another critical aspect. More specifically, the current overuse of cautions is having damaging consequences and reforming this heavy handed approach is a key part in answering the challenge.
Changing the media narrative
The first question of the evening identified a lack of political will as a key issue. While Lord Beith had mentioned earlier in the evening that political will is slowly improving, he also argued that the underlying issue was the popular media narrative, combined with a political leadership scared of the power of popular media. The open question and challenge to everyone was how to change the media narrative on prisons.
An economic argument
Lord Beith talked about how arguments surrounding cost-effectiveness can bring together people from different political spectrums – like in Texas, where Republicans and Democrats agreed on prison reform to stop the ‘extreme waste of tax-payer’s money’. Further, he recalled a discussion with Finnish politicians where he asked how they were so steadily reducing the prison population. Their answer was simply that the finance ministry would not give them any more money.
Re-educating the judiciary on sentencing
John Cooper QC argued the need for the judiciary to not be ‘straitjacketed’ by sentencing guidelines. He argued for a judiciary not over ‘guidelined’, but rather empowered to deliver a more bespoke, mitigated and diverse approach to sentencing.
Learning from other jurisdictions
Scotland has been driving powerful penal reforms and Baroness Kennedy said there is a lot we can learn from that experience. For certain, using the proceeds of the sale of prison real estate to fund the establishment and maintenance of smaller therapeutic centres has been a welcome and helpful development. This has shifted the focus from punishment to reform and rehabilitation.
Further, Jenny Earle informed the audience that in Scotland there is a presumption against short custodial sentences. It was argued that adopting this approach would go a long way to diminishing the current levels of women in prison and the concomitant vicious cycle.