The point is that 66% of women sent to prison who have children are not actually looking after their children when they are sent to prison. That is the point I am making, so I am not entirely sure why we are all pulling our hair out about people who are not even looking after their children. Those children have probably either been put into care or are being looked after by other family members, probably because the mother is considered unfit to look after the children. Why should the courts treat her less harshly when the children have already been removed from her? It is a completely spurious argument.
When it comes to the minority who are looking after their children, we should not assume that they are all fantastic mothers and role models for their children. Many will be persistent offenders with chaotic lifestyles. Some will end up dragging their children into their criminal lifestyles and some will scar their children for life along the way. We presume it is in the children’s best interest to stay with those mothers. It may not be in the best interest of the child for the mother to be released. It may be in their best interests for their mother to go to prison in some cases.
Others will have committed very serious offences. The same official from the Ministry of Justice said recently of women offenders:
“They can be very damaged and also very damaging.”
That is absolutely right. Sarah Salmon of Action for Prisoners’ Families said:
“For some families the mother going into prison is a relief because she has been causing merry hell.”
That is another worthy point we should consider. Let us, finally, not forget those who are in prison for being cruel to their children, for abusing their own children.
The final myth is that women are generally treated more harshly than men in the justice system. It is clear that women are less likely than men to be sent to prison. Therefore, we need to look at other court disposals to see if they are then treated more harshly than men in other areas. If they are not being sent to prison as frequently as men they are presumably being sentenced at the next level down—a community order. They are not. The Ministry of Justice’s figures yet again show that men are more likely than women to receive a community order: 10% of women sentenced are given a community order compared with 16% of men. The Ministry of Justice goes on to confirm that
“these patterns were broadly consistent in each of the last five years”.
Women are less likely than men to go to prison and less likely to be given a community order. That is not all. Of those who are given a community order the ones given to men are likely to be much harsher. The Ministry of Justice says:
“The average length of all community sentences for men was longer than for women…For women receiving a community order, the largest proportion had one requirement, whereas the largest proportion of men had two requirements.”
I do not want to veer into the realms of domestic violence that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle tried to go down; that is a debate for another day.
However, one thing worth noting about sentencing is that despite all the evidence that shows women as the perpetrators of domestic violence in far more cases than some would like us to think, the community requirement imposed on those who commit an offence in a domestic setting is imposed only on men and cannot be handed down to women. As usual, this shows that the whole issue of equality works only one way, even when we are dealing with exactly the same offence.
Given the more severe sentences for men at the higher end of the sentencing spectrum, it is unsurprising that women are more likely to receive low levels of punishment at courts. It is a fact that a higher proportion of female defendants receive fines. All of that shows that throughout the court sentencing regime men are on average treated more severely than women.
Before I conclude there is another interesting statistic that is worth sharing. There is even an imbalance in the number of women reaching court compared with men, as more females than men were issued with pre-court sanctions. That has been consistently the case in recent years according to the Ministry of Justice. That is the evidence.
All the hysteria surrounding women in the justice system is completely without foundation, yet people want to be seen to be doing something about the so-called problem. We have the Together Women project, women-only groups for community sentences, a criminal justice women’s strategy unit, women’s centres, a proposal for women-only courts and, just the other day in Manchester, Sadiq Khan proposed a women’s justice board. That is all on top of the Corston report, which looked at the whole issue of female offenders and came up with even more suggestions.
Looking at the evidence, there appears to be sex discrimination in the sentencing of offenders, but the people being discriminated against are men not women. Women cannot have it both ways. They cannot expect to be treated equally in everything in society except when it comes to being sentenced by the courts for the crimes that they commit. People may want to argue that it is reasonable for women to be given lighter sentences than men, and that it is right that fewer women are sent to prison than men. That is an argument for another day, but at least when we have these debates about sentencing for men and women let us stick to the facts as they are and not what we would like them to be. Men are treated more harshly by the courts than women. If we can at least have debates that flow from that, based on the facts, we will have made a good start today.