Sentencing (Female Offenders) — [Sandra Osborne in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 16th October 2012.

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Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice) 3:30 pm, 16th October 2012

I really should have thought before I said that; I should have predicted that answer. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman raising that point with the leader of his party.

In 2007, the Labour Government published the Corston report, which was commissioned precisely to consider this cohort of offenders. Irritating though it is to the hon. Gentleman, we still believe that specific things can be done for this group of offenders to reduce their reoffending that are not currently taking place, and they are different from those interventions that may be successful for male offenders.

More than 50% of the women in prison report that they have experienced domestic abuse. One in three of them have suffered sexual abuse, and a quarter of the women in prison were in care as children. They are disproportionately more likely to suffer from serious mental health problems than either male offenders or the wider population. Some 37% of women sent to prison say they have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, and 74% left school before they were 16. Drugs and substance misuse are also disproportionately a factor in women’s offending before entering custody—75% of women had used illegal drugs. I have already mentioned the appallingly high amount of self-harm that occurs in this population.

Baroness Corston was led to describe these women as “troubled” rather than simply “troublesome”, although they certainly can be troublesome. A short prison sentence, mandated on top of an already chaotic life, does little to address the root causes of offending. The problems that were there before a female offender entered the gates will be there when she leaves them, only then there might be more. Some 30% of women lose their accommodation while in custody. Many of them had inadequate housing or were homeless before arrest, and they are not the only ones at risk of losing their homes due to imprisonment.

Nearly 18,000 children are separated from their mothers every year by a prison sentence. Female offenders are often the primary or sole carer in a family—this is where they differ from male offenders. Some 66% of women in prison have dependent children under the age of 18. Only 5% of children with a mother in custody are able to stay in their own homes while their mum is inside. The burden often falls on extended family members or on the care system. We cannot afford to inappropriately sentence female offenders who do not pose a serious risk to the public. It costs too much. It costs children their family and their homes. It makes it harder for women, who are often vulnerable or victims in their own right, to get their lives back on track. It condemns communities to have offenders returned to their streets without any meaningful preventative work done; and on top of it all, it simply costs too much.

The Prison Reform Trust, which I know the hon. Member for Shipley holds in very high regard, reports that it costs an average £49,000 per year to hold a woman in prison. The Independent, which I am also sure that the hon. Gentleman reads very carefully, recently ran an article about a woman who had been sent to prison for stealing a lasagne. The ex-governor of Styal women’s prison tells a story of a woman who was given a custodial sentence for stealing a sandwich when she was hungry. In a women’s centre in Manchester earlier this month, I talked to a woman who had been made homeless due to domestic abuse and had been sent to prison after committing petty theft to survive—she had stolen a sandwich.

I reiterate that of course there are crimes where a custodial sentence is the most appropriate punishment for an offender, female or not. However, a disproportionate or ineffective custodial sentence, as is clearly suggested by current reoffending rates, is an awful lot to pay for a solution that solves very little.

Baroness Corston made a series of recommendations about changes that needed to be made to the content and provision of women’s sentences. Her report was greeted with strong support by all parties, including the two—or the one—that now sits opposite me.