Over 9,000 women were received into prison last year, most of them for non-violent offences, many of them leaving dependent children behind. An estimated 17,240 children, including many under 5 years old, are separated from their mothers by imprisonment. The impact on children can be profound and long-lasting – including increased risks of mental illness and anti-social behaviour. Only 5% of children with a mother in prison are able to stay in the family home – and only 9% are cared for by their fathers. By contrast, most children with an imprisoned father remain with their mother.

In a discussion paper published today (24 November), the Prison Reform Trust considers sentencing policy, process and practice through a review of case law and research evidence, talking to mothers in prison, and consultations with key individuals and organisations. Based on this analysis, it proposes a number of reforms to reduce the number of children separated from their mothers through imprisonment. 

The paper is focussed on mothers, because they are most likely to be caring for dependent children, but most of the proposals would apply to men as well as women where they have sole or primary care responsibilities. 

Policymakers are increasingly mindful of the damage caused by parental imprisonment and the need to come up with alternative solutions. The 2015 Conservative election manifesto promised to explore “how new technology may enable more women with young children to serve their sentence in the community”. The March Budget 2015 committed to “designing a more integrated, multi-agency approach to divert female offenders convicted of petty, non-violent offences from custody where appropriate”.

For the first time, there is a statutory obligation (in Section 10 of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014) to identify and address women’s needs in arrangements for the supervision and rehabilitation of offenders. This should include childcare and parenting support – otherwise women may be unable to comply with the terms of a community supervision order.

Building on these positive developments, the briefing puts forward a number of proposals to ensure primary care responsibilities are more fully recognised and taken into account in sentencing decisions. These include clearer guidance to the courts on how to consider primary caring responsibilities, improving the quality and timeliness of pre-sentence reports, more information and training for lawyers, judges and magistrates, and improved availability of robust community sentencing options that take account of care responsibilities.

The discussion paper calls for a whole government approach to improving outcomes for mothers. It recommends that the government conduct a review of sentencing policy to ensure appropriate recognition of, and provision for, a person’s sole or primary care responsibilities.

Writing in the foreword, Malcolm Richardson JP, National Chairman of the Magistrates Association said:

“We have long been advocates of increased provision of challenging sentences in the community as viable alternatives to custody, especially for parents who often struggle to combine the requirements of a generic community order with childcare and school runs...

We look forward to ....exploring the potential for enabling more mothers of young children to serve their sentence in the community.”

Jenny Earle, programme director for Transforming Lives at the Prison Reform Trust and contributing author of the paper said: 

“For mothers, prison is a double punishment as they experience the guilt, grief and pain of separation from their children and the knowledge that their children will bear the scars. There is widespread public support for non-custodial responses to women’s non-violent offending, as well as political consensus on the need for reform.”

Juliet Lyon, Director of Prison Reform Trust, said: 

“Courts must weigh up aggravating and mitigating factors in individual cases but there is a wider balance to strike in the sentencing framework when so many women are sentenced to short spells in prison for petty, persistent offending, mostly shoplifting, and at the same time so many of these women are victims of serious crime, domestic violence, abuse, exploitation and rape.”

The report was covered on BBC Radio 4's Law in Action, and The Guardian.