Too many women are jailed – we need a radical new approach to criminal justice.
International Women’s Day was significant for women within the criminal justice system. For this March marks 10 years since the publication of the Corston report, which outlined the need for a ‘radical change in the way we treat women throughout the whole of the criminal justice system… requiring a radical new approach, treating women both holistically and individually – a woman-centred approach’.
At the House of Lords earlier this month, individuals from across the women’s sector met at a landmark event co-hosted by the charity Women In Prison and supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust.
In a heartwarming speech, Baroness Corston declared that ‘the overwhelming majority of women in prison certainly should not be there,’ reflecting on incidents of homelessness, self-harm and loss of children.
Women represent only 5% of the prison population, yet account for 28% of self-harm incidents. Another young woman took her own life this month at Downview, and the suicide of 12 women last year has placed prison suicides at an all-time high within the women’s criminal justice system.
Fair, just and effective are not words that can possibly be used to describe the position of women sentenced to custody.
The one women’s prison in London, Holloway, is now shut and its valuable land has not been replaced by any holistic women’s centre, or even smaller units. Instead, women are being incarcerated in prisons some four hours’ travel from home, where children and families cannot afford to travel to visit them. In addition, 60% of women are leaving custody homeless. Women coming out of Bronzefield last year were being provided with tents and sleeping bags by staff.
The rate of recall and the repeat volume for minor offences highlight that prison does not work. Some 84% of individuals are sentenced for theft and non-violent offences, often intrinsically linked to drug addiction.
There are no separate sentencing guidelines for women. A lack of gender-specific sentencing guidelines might at first blush seem appropriate. But there is no reference in any of the current Sentencing Guidelines to the international safeguards the UK has signed up to by way of the Bangkok Rules.
Some 46% of women in custody have suffered from a background of domestic violence. Despite promising greater protection from coercive and controlling relationships, through section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 and proposed domestic violence legislation, there is no reflection in sentencing guidelines or protection for them.
At this month’s event, justice secretary Liz Truss gave a ‘declaration of commitment’ to tackling the issue of women in custody and the need for early intervention, together with personally tailored programmes from police commissioners.
Truss recognised that despite there only being 4,000 women in custody, this ‘relatively small number has a huge impact on society’, with 17,000 children being taken into care.
What does work and what is effective? Baroness Corston highlighted how effective women’s centres are in terms of rehabilitation and increasing women’s self-esteem. The depletion in funding has left these centres limping on, and Corston rightly outlined that if some of those centres close the number of women in custody will rise.
Investment in women’s centres, and understanding how economically and practically effective they can be, are the best routes to reducing the number of incarcerated women and the rate of reoffending.
By next year’s International Women’s Day, I hope not to be writing about the number of deaths in custody, or women separated from their children, but rather about the number of women who have been assisted back into work and connected with their families.
Paramjit Ahluwalia is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers, London