Magistrates’ courts are sending fewer women to prison than in previous years but some courts are four times more likely to jail women than others, according to figures obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform.
Research by the charity reveals that although the overall number of women being sent to prison has dropped, there is a ‘striking disparity’ between sentencing rates in different parts of the country.
Magistrates’ courts handed down almost 287,000 sentences to women and girls in 2011, imposing immediate custody in more than 4,300 cases (1.5%).
Courts in Cumbria imposed immediate custodial sentences in 2.7% of the cases they heard during 2011, almost four times the rate recorded in criminal justice areas such as Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Northumbria and Wiltshire.
Overall, magistrates’ courts reduced their use of custody for women by a third between 2001 and 2011.
But in nine criminal justice areas - Avon and Somerset, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Surrey, Thames Valley, Dyfed-Powys, and South Wales - courts imposed prison sentences on women more frequently in 2011 than they did a decade earlier.
The Howard League says that the figures suggest that, while many courts are making good use of community sentences which help cut crime and turn women’s lives around, other benches are imposing prison terms unnecessarily in some cases.
Commenting on the figures, Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League welcomed the drop in the use of short prison sentences for women, but she said: ‘It remains the case that a woman convicted of a non-violent offence is more likely to go to prison than a man.
‘Women who find themselves in court often need a lot of support. They are often victims of crimes themselves such as domestic abuse or pimping. Sending these women to prison for a few weeks is not the answer to the complex issues in their lives.’
She said the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, currently going through parliament, which extends short-term prison sentences with a year of supervision in the community, could make the situation worse for women as it is unclear how specialist services will survive as the government seeks to privatise probation.
The Magistrates’ Association did not accept that courts are overusing custody. It said geographical differences, most notably the availability of alternatives to custody, affect sentencing
The association’s vice-chair Val Castell said: ‘Just because some courts have to impose more custodial sentences than others does not mean that they are necessarily overusing custody.’
She added: ‘We support the government’s initiative in setting up an advisory board for women offenders and believe this will influence more consistent provision for women offenders nationally.
‘At least one women’s centre has recently widened the area of residence for which they will provide sentence support.’