I was very disappointed to read today that Ken Clarke has decided to ignore the evidence and arguments submitted by reform groups who argue that fewer women should be in prison. As a former General Secretary of the Chief Probation Officers’ Association I have some expertise and considerable interest in this subject.
I understand that the Justice Secretary feels himself to be in a difficult situation at the moment, after the rape sentences fiasco he got himself into….but he seems to have got entirely the wrong end of the stick.
The reason why many people (women especially) were outraged at the time wasn’t because the UK just likes to keep lots of people in prison, it’s because the particular reforms that he wanted to introduce would have reduced sentences for violent sex attackers. Ultimately the problem was that rape sentences as a whole are too low and the Justice Secretary was found just as guilty as the rest of the establishment of not taking rape seriously.
This debacle, however, should not prevent him from looking critically at sentence reform, especially when it comes to female offenders.
I’m not writing this because I believe women are less bad than men or deserve different treatment by virtue of being women but merely because, in general terms, female offences vary greatly from male offences, in ways that make prison a less suitable option.
Prison has three functions, punishment, rehabilitation and public protection. I would argue that for many female prisoners these functions are either redundant or failing.
In regard to the punishment element, while punishment is obviously necessary for all offences, the spiralling costs of incarceration mean that it is no longer just prisoners who are being punished but society as a whole, those schoolchildren or people in care who could really use the £54,000 a year it costs to keep someone in prison. Given that so many other areas of public spending are suffering, we need to start looking for alternative means of punishing people.
In terms of rehabilitation, I think it is safe to say that the prison system is completely failing, especially when compared to community based methods. For instance Anawim Community centre in Birmingham reported last year that 3 per cent of women using the unit had reoffended, compared to 54 per cent of those in jail.
The community penalty reoffending rate is so much lower mainly because being locked up with other criminals and treated inhumanely does not generally help those who have offended to deal with their offending behaviour. This is then exacerbated as people leave prison often with no means of supporting themselves other than crime.
If we want to give people a chance to actually become productive members of society it would be better not to damn them with a prison history if at all possible.
There are also reasons why prison is especially bad for women. Female prisoners who are pregnant or single parents may lose their children. Even in the case of there being another partner or grandparents those children are still without the care of the mother for substantial amount of time, breaking family bonds and setting the course for a continuation of family dysfunctionality (and possibly crime) into the next generation.
So now we come on to the protection element, which I believe is the only one of its three functions prison actually serves effectively. Yet this is where the situation for women is most different because female crime is overwhelmingly less violence-based than male crime. As detailed in the Guardian, just under 45 per cent of women sent to jail in 2009 were convicted of theft, fraud and forgery offences, compared with 21 per cent of men. Just 14 per cent of women jailed were convicted of violence against the person, compared with 21 per cent of men.
Ultimately far fewer female convicts are actually dangerous and therefore worthy of protecting society from. Given this, the escalating costs of incarceration and the fact that for female offenders especially community based mechanisms are far better for rehabilitation and offender’s families surely it is about time Ken Clarke took notice of those arguing for female sentence reform.