In the Media

Britons favour healthcare over prison for women offenders

PUBLISHED November 26, 2012

Instead public health measures, such as treatment for drug addiction and alcohol misuse, emerged as the preferred options to help cut female offending rates in a new poll commissioned by the Prison Reform Trust.

Nearly seven out of 10 people (69 per cent) believe treatment for drug addiction would be effective at reducing the risk of offending, while 68 per cent believe help to prevent alcohol misuse would produce the same result.

Sixty-two per cent of Britons also believe mental health care would play a strong role in preventing women from committing crime.

Imprisonment was only considered the seventh most effective way of addressing women's offending and backed by 52 per cent of people surveyed.

Britons preferred for there to be support for women to get out of debt and supervision and support centres for women over prison to help cut offending rates amongst women.

Currently women make up five per cent of the total prison population and the majority of the crimes they commit are non-violent.

The Prison Reform Trust commissioned the poll of 1,552 people, carried out by YouGov, to coincide with the launch of its three-year strategy to reduce the imprisonment of women in the UK.

Approximately half of women leaving prison are reconvicted within one year of release. This figure rises to over 60 per cent for those women serving a short sentence of 12 months or less.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Most women in prison are serving short sentences for petty persistent offending and non-violent crime. Most have been victims of serious crime, domestic violence and sexual abuse

"Solutions to women's offending lie not behind bars but in effective treatment to beat addictions to drugs and drink, mental health care and help to get out of debt. The public understand this. Now it is up to Government to put things right."

About 13,500 women are sent to prison in the UK every year. At any one time there are around 4,650 women in British prisons. The average annual cost of a women's prison place is £56,415, compared to £10,000 - £15,000 for an intensive community order.

The Prison Reform Trust has received funding from the Pilgrim Trust to support its work over the next three years to try and reduce the number of women going to the prison. Instead of continued imprisonment, it will urge the Government to increase the number of Women's Centres, where women can carry out community service while receiving help for their problems, such as alcohol addiction.

Long term, the trust wants to see the majority of the 11 women's prisons in the UK shut down in favour of these centres, as most of the crimes committed by women in the UK are non-violent and would be better solved by non custodial sentences -which tend to be very short and highly ineffective at stopping re-offending.

This evening Dame Elish Angiolini, chair of the Scottish Commission on Women Offenders, is giving a lecture on reforming women's justice at Friends House in London to a 700-strong audience.

"In a long history of pretty meaningless soundbites, 'short, sharp shock' at least has the merit of being an attractive display of an alliteration," she will say.

"That is its only value. Far from having a deterrent effect, the short sentence has the impact of inoculating women offenders from any deterrent value of imprisonment. Neither are these sentences suitable as a refuge from the harsh reality of life outside for some badly damaged women.

"Prison needs to stop being the default position because of inertia in finding robust and effective alternatives in the community."

Earlier this month Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, appointed Helen Grant, as the UK's first ever minister to take specific responsibility for women in prisons. Earlier this month he said of the decision: "One of the first prisons I visited was Holloway. I saw at first hand the very different challenge we face with women offenders. One of the earliest steps I took was to separate ministerial responsibility for men and women in our prisons, asking the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) to take on the role of Minister with responsibility for women in prisons, and to look at whether we are getting the regime right and how we should adapt it to reflect the very different challenges we face with women in our prisons."

Jenny Earle has been appointed the director of the new Prison Reform Trust programme to reduce women's imprisonment. She added: "Because women are such a small minority of the prison population they are easily overlooked. But change is also more easily achieved on a smaller scale. By working constructively with government, and together with our partners - including the National Federation of Women's Institutes (the WI), the Soroptimists and the National Council of Women, and other organisations committed to reforming justice for women - we will ensure more effective responses to women's offending."