Due to the general election on 8 June 2017 the Justice Committee Inquiry into Prison Reform has concluded. Following the dissolution of Parliament on 3 May 2017, all Select Committees cease to exist until after the general election. Written and oral evidence received and accepted by the Committee so far is all published – or will shortly be published – on the inquiry page. It will be for the new Justice Committee in the next Parliament to decide whether to continue work on this subject. Read the written and oral evidence here.
Our submission (on women in prison and reform of justice and penal systems) has been published. It is based on our 4 year research project and 2 extensive policy papers: Women in prison – is the justice system fit for purpose AND Women in prison – is the penal system fit for purpose for Halsbury’s Law Exchange. Both papers give significant technical detail which we suggest would be of use to the Justice Committee. Both papers are too large to be added to the submission portal but can be found at the links above.
• Female offenders – and their children – are still experiencing the devastating effects of short-term sentences and reports this month suggest that suicides in prison have reached ‘epidemic’ proportions, with rates of self-harm and violence soaring to unprecedented levels.
• Leading charities such as The Howard League, Women In Prison and the Prison Reform Trust have aimed to bring about change in the way we treat women throughout the criminal justice system, it is clear that both the justice and the penal systems are still failing to address the multiple and complex needs posed by women.
• It is fiscally prudent to consider that those who receive community orders rather than custodial sentences are less likely to reoffend and when they do they are less likely to commit violent crime.
• The average cost to keep a female offender in prison was approximately £56,415 per annum, compared to £10,000-£15,000 for an intensive community order.
• This argument is not about giving women lenient sentences, or sentences less than a man would receive in the same circumstances; it is about diverting women away from the justice system altogether when they have acted as a result of coercion, abuse or exploitation (as a victim of domestic abuse or human trafficking) or imposing the correct sentence by reference to the principles which recognise the devastating effects of incarceration on women, their families and the knock on effects to society.
• It is time to bring about a fundamental and radical change in the way we treat women throughout the whole of the criminal justice system. As Corston identified in her 2007 report nearly a decade ago, ‘we require a radical new approach, treating women both holistically and individually – a woman-centred approach’.
Non prosecution and non-punishment of women
• Women in prison are likely to be victims as well as offenders, more than half (53%) report being emotionally, physically or sexually abused as a child. Over half the women in prison report having suffered domestic violence and one in three had suffered sexual abuse.
• The incarceration of women who have committed offences when they have been the subject of exploitation, abuse or coercion lacks reason.
• Treatment of women as victims is illogical when the patterns of abusive behaviour are diverse and so widespread. Women should be treated as witnesses to a global violence problem that nations must try to solve. It should be possible to accept certain acts as involuntary or recognise reduced culpability, thus apply new laws to move women from the position of ‘suspect’ to the role of ‘witness’.
• Other than the limited defences in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and the common law defence of duress, the exploitation, abuse and coercion of women is not applied as a criterion to reduce or extinguish criminal liability. This is an area ripe for legislative reform. Wide consideration should be given to reducing criminal responsibility is all offences in a similar way to the partial defence of diminished responsibility to murder.
• The government has recognised the effects of coercive control in new legislation which contains criteria which could be adapted to apply to decisions not to prosecute or not to punish coerced or controlled women who allegedly offend.
• To comply with international commitments to gender equality, three key areas are: training of judges and other actors in the criminal justice system on gender issues (particularly those set out in the Bangkok and Tokyo Rules); reducing the criminalisation of women subject to exploitation, abuse and coercion; and changing sentencing.
• There is at present no specific sentencing regime applicable to female offenders and the current approach is restrictive. One part of this discussion therefore has to be the power of the Sentencing Council to effect change by reviewing sentencing guidelines and whether it is achievable without alternatives and social provision. Where there is inequality, such measures can be taken.
• The supposedly simple solution for politicians to instruct judges to send fewer women to prison does not resolve the risk of re-trafficking, further abuse or re-offending. Nor does it abate the community appetite for retribution and risks putting the legislature at loggerheads with the judiciary.
• A sentencing guideline dealing with gender issues should be addressed.
• Primary care responsibilities should be taken into account by calling evidence as it would be in a family case. The Sentencing Council has made advancements in this area, explicitly referencing ‘primary caring responsibilities’ as a mitigating feature in its guidelines. However, more ought to be done to integrate criminal courts with family, child and health services. The Ministry of Justice estimates that between 24% and 31% of all female offenders have one or more child dependents and an estimated 17,240 children are separated from their primary carers (usually mothers) by imprisonment every year. Research shows that most children are then placed in out of home care.
Community orders as a priority
• In relation to female offenders a ‘one size fits all’ penal approach will not work.
• Whilst custodial sentences are sometimes appropriate, prison should not be the default response to criminal offending by women.
• Research has found that prison sentences fail to address the complex needs of female offenders.
Community prisons with health and welfare facilities
• Many female prisoners experience high rates of mental health disorders, have been victims of sexual and domestic violence, and suffer from substance addictions.
• Often women serving short sentences go on to reoffend: 54% of women leaving prison are reconvicted within one year; for those serving less than 12 months this increases to 64%. The Corston Report found that short sentences of around 30 days are particularly futile and damaging, and yet are commonly handed down.
• Evidence from Anawim Women’s Centre demonstrated that only 3% of women using its support services went on to commit further offences and 7% breached their community order. Yet reports suggest that many centres dedicated to assisting women in crisis are closing due to funding problems.
Whichever party wins the election must, in our view, prioritise prison reform for women. The research is now unarguable that our current justice and penal systems are inadequate, ineffective and cruel.