Most women are sent to prison for non-violent offences and serve sentences of 12 months or less, a new briefing by the Prison Reform Trust reveals. 72% of women who entered prison under sentence in 2020 have committed a non-violent offence. Furthermore, 70% of prison sentences given to women were for less than 12 months.

A series of inquiries and reports over the last 20 years, as well as the government’s own ‘female offender strategy’, have all concluded that prison is rarely a necessary, appropriate or proportionate response to women who get caught up in the criminal justice system. Despite this, the government has recently announced plans to build an additional 500 prison places in the women’s estate. This is in direct contradiction to a key commitment of the female offender strategy to reduce the female prison population.

The briefing provides a concise and informative explanation of the need to focus on reducing the imprisonment of women in England and Wales. It contains statistics on the number of women imprisoned, the characteristics of women in prison and the drivers to their offending, as well as information about community-based services and solutions.

Other key facts highlighted in the briefing include:

  • Women were sent to prison on 5,011 occasions in 2020—either on remand or to serve a sentence.
  • Levels of self-harm in the women’s estate reached record levels in 2020. There were 11,988 incidents of self-harm compared to 7,670 in 2016. Women made up 22% of all self-harm incidents in 2020, despite making up only 4% of the prison population.
  • Women serving a sentence of less than 12 months accounted for almost half of recalls in 2020.
  • The use of community sentences has dropped by two-thirds since 2010.

Women, who make up only 4% of the total prison population, are easily overlooked in policy, planning, and investment in the services that help them to take responsibility and turn their lives around. A recent PRT analysis of progress made by the government in implementing the female offender strategy since it was published in 2018 found that it had fully implemented less than half (31) of 65 commitments.

Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, will be giving evidence to the Justice Committee today as part of its inquiry into women in prison. Commenting on the launch of the briefing, he said:

“The evidence highlighted in our briefing could not be clearer—good, reliably funded community provision works better than prison, costs less, and keeps families together. Yet the government seems wedded to a costly policy of expanding the women’s prison population in direct contradiction of the evidence and its own female offenders’ strategy. We need investment in a national network of women’s centres, not new prison places.”

Click here to download a copy of the briefing