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‘I looked forward to letters from her because she would kiss the letters and it would smell of her’

Laetitia was 8 years old when her mother was sentenced to custody.  Her experience is shared by an estimated 17,700 children who are separated from their mothers by imprisonment each year, with just 5% being able to remain in their own homes while their mums are inside

On 2 September 2011 there were 4,255 women in prison in England and Wales.  In the course of a year over 11,000 women will be received into custody.  Many are remanded by the courts, often for mental health assessments, or serving short sentences for non-violent crimes.  Many have themselves been the victims of serious crime such as domestic violence or sexual abuse, and many have serious mental health problems. 

Prison tends to make things worse, not better.  Local community women’s centres have had better results, but many face an uncertain financial future. Government research has shown that community sentences are more effective than short prison terms at reducing reoffending, and at a fraction of the cost.  There is public support too. An ICM opinion poll commissioned by the Prison Reform Trust found that, of over 1,000 respondents, 86% supported the development of local centres for women to address the causes of their offending.  The National Council of Women recently passed a unanimous resolution calling on the Government to introduce a rigorous, cross-departmental strategy to reform women’s justice, prioritising community solutions. 

Yet there is no national strategy to reduce offending by women, make more use of community solutions and bring down women’s prison numbers.  Women were not mentioned at all in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill when it was introduced in Parliament this summer.  This was a missed opportunity to drive forward the implementation of measures that we know would help many women get on the right track, enabling them to take responsibility for their lives and families, strengthening communities and ensuring existing local provision is sustained.

There is still time to put matters right.  The Prison Reform Trust is working with others to make sure the Bill is amended to require a national strategy to reduce women’s offending and stop sending so many women to prison, together with an annual report to Parliament.  Even without new legislation, reform of women’s justice can be achieved by proper leadership and sensible use of existing resources.

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