The Economist | 29 October 2010
Calls to reform the sentencing of women are growing louder
AFTER a bad beginning, Fiona Flaherty has done well. Convicted of assaulting her partner in 2005, she was sent to Downview, a women’s prison in Surrey. There she studied for a BTEC in digital media, organised by a not-for-profit outfit, Media for Development (MfD), and helped run Britain’s first prison-based television station. In 2006 she was allowed out each day to work at MfD’s Inside Job Productions, which makes films. Released in 2007, Ms Flaherty found a job in the private sector, though her heart was in her mouth when she told her prospective boss, as she was legally bound to, that she had done time. Today, after having two daughters, she works for her husband as a software tester.
Ms Flaherty was lucky. For all the efforts of groups such as MfD, not to mention those of prison and probation staff, just 13% of women found employment on their release from prison in 2009. And that is only one of the problems they face. A third will have lost their homes; most will have been separated from children and may struggle to regain custody; many are still dealing with the drug habit or mental-health problems that about three-quarters went into clink with, or picked up inside. Women account for 5% of people in prison, but for 43% of the self-harming that happens behind bars.
Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust, a campaigning charity, scathingly points out that although at least six big inquiries over the past decade have made a strong case for reducing the imprisonment of women and finding alternatives to custody, the basic situation hasn’t changed. It is not that all the 4,200 women in English and Welsh prisons are angels or victims. But as a group women are different from the 95% of the prison population that penal policy is designed to hold securely.
Three-quarters of women are sentenced for non-violent offences (for men, the figure is lower); a big chunk are inside on remand, of whom most do not go on to receive a custodial sentence; perhaps three-quarters have been subjected to sexual or domestic violence. Most importantly, 60% of women in prison have children, only 5% of whom are able to stay in their homes when their mothers are put away.
There have been some improvements since an influential government-sponsored report in 2007. One is the growth of women’s community centres, part-funded (until next year at least) by central government, which offer sentencing alternatives, access to drug treatment and rehabilitation courses and try to divert women at risk of offending. But the number of women in prison has not dropped.
That could be set to change now, thanks in part to a sharper focus on the finances of locking people up. It costs over £55,000 a year to incarcerate a woman. As two-thirds of them are serving sentences of six months or less—too short a time to tackle addictions or mental-health problems—and two-thirds of these short-stayers will be reconvicted within a year, it seems money ill spent when intensive community sentences can be had for £10,000-15,000. New assessments of women’s centres suggest that many of them work. For example only 3% of women referred to the Anawim centre in Birmingham reoffend; only 7% breach their community sentences.
For some, the government’s new criminal-justice bill, to be debated by MPs from October 31st, offers a chance for reform. Jenny Chapman, Labour’s shadow minister for prisons, intends to introduce an amendment requiring the government to appoint someone to champion women in the criminal-justice system, and to report annually to Parliament. Others of her 2010 parliamentary intake who are interested in the matter include Claire Perry, a fast-rising Conservative MP, and Caroline Lucas, Parliament’s sole elected Green.
For both Ms Chapman and Ms Perry, payment by results (PBR) may be the key to success. The government has embraced PBR as a way to cut costs while improving outcomes: two such programmes, which reward private and third-sector outfits for reducing male reoffending rates, are running at Peterborough and Doncaster prisons. The justice ministry is interested in PBR schemes for women too, it says; some reformers would like to see them designed to encourage non-custodial sentences.
Wider pressure for some sort of change is growing. On October 18th the National Council of Women called on members to lobby their MPs. On October 25th the Howard League, a charity that advocates penal reform, launched an inquiry into how to keep vulnerable girls on the straight and narrow. With more immediate practical effect, perhaps, Pret a Manger, a fast-food chain, is now giving women offenders apprenticeships that lead to fully paid employment.