No one has yet been able to tell us which of those people should not be in prison, so I presume that we can only conclude that all of them should be in prison. Therefore, we do not really have a problem.
I want to decouple one other thing. The number of women who receive short sentences in any one year is a completely different figure from the female prison population at any one time. Looking at recent figures as an example, just under 16% of female prisoners are serving sentences of less than six months, which is clearly a minority. If that is not classed as a short sentence, a further 6% are in prison for up to one year, so 22% of female prisoners are in custody for up to 12 months, which covers all cases heard in magistrates courts and some cases heard in Crown courts. All other female offenders are serving sentences of more than one year, which means their offences were so serious that they had to be dealt with by a Crown court. Those women, 78% of the total female prison population, are not serving short sentences for not-so-serious offences, as people would have us believe, but are serving much longer sentences for the most serious crimes. The figure of 78% of the female prison population comprises 34% serving between one and four years, 28% serving sentences of four years to life and 11% serving indeterminate sentences. A further 5% of offenders are in prison because after previously being released, they have either reoffended or breached their licence conditions. That is the second myth: women are imprisoned for short sentences and not very serious offences.
The third myth is that women are often remanded in custody but then are not sentenced to custody. I have heard the misuse of many statistics over the issue of remand and female offenders, so I want to introduce the House to the facts. The Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that women are more likely than men to get bail. The figures are in “Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System” of November 2010.
“In 2009 80% of females were bailed, compared with 62% of males; 20% were remanded in custody compared with 38% of males. The percentage remanded for both males and females is at a five-year low.”
Those figures yet again back up the fact that more men than women are sentenced to custody. The document goes on:
“Of those remanded in custody, 66% of females were then sentenced to immediate custody in comparison with 75% of males.”
When people complain about women being more likely to be remanded in custody and then not sent to prison, it is solely due to women being treated more favourably when they are sentenced. It is not that they are more harshly treated when the decision is made to remand them in custody or give them bail. The figures are perfectly clear: yet another deliberate myth.
The fourth myth is that prison separates mothers from their children, which unfairly punishes them. It is said that 17,000 children are separated from their mothers and that 60% of women in custody have children under the age of 18. It is also suggested that about 700 of more than 4,000 women are in prisons more than 100 miles away from their children. Let us take that in stages. First, it is not the system that separates any mother from her children. It is that individual’s actions in breaking the law that have led to prison and that is almost certainly 100% their fault and their responsibility alone. As we already know from the evidence, they are less likely than men to go to prison. In addition, recently updated sentencing guidelines also incorporate consideration of the effect that custody would have on others, when the defendant is the primary carer for another. That again is likely to benefit further more women than men when they are sentenced.
If we are so concerned about the children of women offenders, what about the estimated 180,000 children who are separated from their fathers who are in prison? In this age of equality, what about that much higher figure? Should we not be more, or at least equally, outraged about that? If not, why not? Some women may be further away from their children than others in prison, but let us turn to the main point about all those women who are allegedly being so unfairly dragged away from their poor children by over-harsh magistrates and judges. That is another big myth.
My understanding is that a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Justice has helpfully confirmed recently that two thirds of the mothers sent to prison who have children were not even looking after them at the time. She apparently said of the women being sent to prison:
“Two-thirds of them didn’t have their kids living with them when they went to prison.”
Why on earth is there such a huge outcry about separating mothers from their children, when most of the mothers in prison were not being mothers to their children anyway?