Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Women in Prison: is the penal system fit for purpose?

At a Halsbury Law Exchange meeting last night, a top notch panel, aided by a powerful film of testimony from former women prisoners, did not take long to agree that it isn’t. Rather longer was spent discussing what should and could be done to fix it, with  Joshua Rozenberg in the chair.  

A helpful paper prepared by Felicity Gerry QC (marred only by its omission of any reference to the 2010 UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Offenders) focussed attention on four issues: how to keep women out of the criminal justice system, the best approach to sentencing women who can’t be diverted from court, appropriate arrangements for imprisonment where it’s unavoidable and ensuring support on release.

Representatives from the Howard League, Prison Reform Trust and User Voice argued for more widespread and stringent efforts to provide alternatives to custodial remands and sentences, to address the needs of children of imprisoned mothers and seek to resolve the financial, housing and relationship problems which underlie much of women’s offending- the last of which has been made much more difficult by the reductions in civil legal aid.  Lord Ramsbotham repeated his oft made call for a Women’s Justice Board to provide leadership and structure for developing effective policy and practice.  So far, so familiar.  

In terms of likely improvements to the system, three specific directions seemed to emerge. First, at the shallow end of the system, notwithstanding the Government’s crackdown on cautioning, there is still support for keeping petty persistent women offenders out of court and into the kind of agencies that can help rather than punish them. Simon Hughes the Lib Dem minister told the meeting that specific diversion arrangements for women would be in place in all metropolitan areas (covering 40% of the population) by February next year.
At the deep end, by contrast, on prisons, Baroness Corston’s proposal for small prison units to replace large prisons like Holloway and Styal looks to be a dead letter.

But what about sentencing, arguably the most controversial aspect of any reform programme. Corston did not recommend a separate sentencing system for women and the Sentencing Council has never produced a comprehensive set of gender specific guidelines. Lord Phillips the former Chair of the Council said he thought that they should have done so when he was in charge. It seems a very significant gap in recent efforts to improve justice for women. As was suggested last night, he should get on the phone to the current chair and ask them to get working on it. 

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