An analysis of local court data published today by the Prison Reform Trust has found a significant north-south divide in rates of women’s imprisonment in England and Wales.

The latest figures for 2019 continue to reveal a postcode lottery in women’s imprisonment rates, with women in the north of England, the Midlands and parts of Wales far more likely to end up behind bars than those in the south of England. For instance, women in South Wales are nearly seven times more likely to be imprisoned than women in Surrey.

 

Imprisonment rates for women by Police Force Area, 2019

 

The analysis suggests that impressive work in some local areas to reduce the use of immediate custody for women is starting to have an effect. Overall, the rate of women’s imprisonment in England and Wales was 25 per 100,000 in 2019, compared to 32 per 100,000 in 2014. 

A welcome change in policy direction was signalled by the introduction of the government’s female offender strategy in 2018, which committed to reducing the numbers of women in prison. However, the latest prison population projections throw doubt on the government’s confidence in its strategy, with numbers of women in prison predicted to climb from just over 3,200 today to 4,500 by 2026. The Prison Reform Trust has written to the prison and probation minister, Lucy Frazer, to ask how the strategy is to be resourced and if its core objective still stands.

The analysis shows that all of the police areas with the 10 highest rates of female imprisonment are in the north of England, the Midlands or in Wales:

 Police Force Area
 Imprisonment rate
(per 100,000 women)

 South Wales 62
 Cleveland 43
 Nottinghamshire 39
 West Midlands
 36
 Merseyside 36
 Cumbria 35
 Cheshire 34
 Humberside 34
 West Yorkshire
 33
 North Wales                                      
 31
 

By contrast, the vast majority of police force areas with the 10 lowest rates of women’s imprisonment are in the south of England:

 Police Force Area
 Imprisonment rate
(per 100,000 women)

 Surrey9
 Suffolk12
 Bedfordshire12
 Sussex
12
 Hertfordshire14
 Devon and Cornwall
14
 Gloucestershire
14
 Durham
16
 Hampshire
16
 Wiltshire; Thames Valley; and Gwent
17
 

The analysis also examined trends in the use of immediate prison sentences for women in England and Wales from 2014 to 2019.

During this period, the analysis found that there had been a 21% reduction in the number of immediate prison sentences for women but this is not evenly spread between local areas. Between 2018 and 2019, the number of immediate prison sentences for women increased in 13 of the 42 police force areas.

In Greater Manchester, an area with an embedded multi-agency strategy to address the causes of women’s offending, the number of immediate prison sentences given to women has reduced by 44% since 2014, compared to the national reduction of 21%. The number of immediate prison sentences of less than 12 months given to women has reduced by 56% since 2014, compared to the national reduction of 24%. 

Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“These figures suggest that progress is being made at the national and local level to reduce the unnecessary imprisonment of women—a key commitment of the government’s female offenders’ strategy. But it’s still a postcode lottery and the majority women sent to prison are still being sent there for non-violent offences to serve sentences of less than one year. These sentences can have a devastating impact on women and their children without doing anything to address the causes of offending.

“Worryingly, the latest prison population projections suggest that recent progress could be undone with numbers of women in prison predicted to rise by 1,300 within six years. Sustained investment in community alternatives for women and a sharp reduction in the use of short sentences are urgently needed if the government is to keep its promises.”

 

Notes

You can download copies of each of the briefings prepared for this analysis below:

Rates of immediate custody for women in England and Wales by Police Force Area, 2014–2019

Number of women sentenced to immediate custody in England and Wales by Police Force Area, 2014–2019

Number of women sentenced to immediate custody for less than 12 months in England and Wales by Police Force Area, 2014–2019

Number of women sentenced to immediate custody for less than 6 months in England and Wales by Police Force Area, 2014–2019

A copy of the letter sent to the prison and probation minister, Lucy Frazer, earlier this month is available by clicking here.