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07 February 2017

Government’s probation reforms risk driving up the number of women in prison

The number of women in prison is in danger of rising as new threats place further pressure on an already beleaguered prison system, according to a new briefing published today (9 February) by the Prison Reform Trust.

A sharp rise in the number of recalls to custody; increasing use of suspended sentence orders; and the continued decline in the number of community orders risk more women ending up behind bars.

Nearly 10 years after the publication of Baroness Corston’s seminal review on women in the criminal justice system, Why Women?, has uncovered new figures showing that the number of women recalled to custody following their release has increased by over two-thirds (68%) since the end of 2014. Women recalled to custody now account for 8% of the total women’s prison population.

The number of women recalled to prison has risen dramatically following changes introduced by the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014, which mandated post-custody supervision for all people serving sentences of more than one day. Women are not only recalled if they commit a further offence, but can be recalled to custody if they breach the conditions of their licence whilst under supervision. This may include missing an appointment with probation staff. Latest figures show that only just over a quarter of women (27%) were recalled for a further criminal charge.

Following concerns raised by the inspectorates of probation and prisons and the National Audit Office, the government is currently reviewing the contracts under which providers are commissioned to deliver rehabilitation services for offenders released from prison. A government strategy for women in the criminal justice system is due to be published in the summer.

The briefing reveals the growing use of suspended sentences, and the decline of community orders. The number of suspended prison sentences given to women has doubled in the last decade, whilst at the same time community orders have nearly halved.

Suspended sentences require compliance with court ordered requirements, with the threat of custody should a woman breach any of its terms. Their growing use over the last 10 years risks driving up the women’s prison population.

Between 1995 and 2010 the women’s prison population in England and Wales more than doubled—with over 4,000 women held in prison. A welcome gradual decline in recent years now risks being reversed.

A series of inquiries and reports over the last twenty years have all concluded that prison is rarely a necessary, appropriate or proportionate response to women who get caught up in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, making up some 5% of the total prison population, women are easily overlooked in policy, planning, and investment in the services that help them to take responsibility and turn their lives around.

As we approach the 10th Anniversary of Baroness Corston’s Report, the shocking rise in the number of self-inflicted deaths in the past year serves as a warning to ministers against complacency. 12 women took their own lives in 2016, a level last seen just before Corston’s review.

Commenting, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s programme to reduce women’s imprisonment, Jenny Earle said:

“Despite widespread and cross-party support for reducing women’s imprisonment, there is a real risk women’s prison numbers will be pushed up as the revolving door of breach and recall to custody spins faster. Reforms that were supposed to help women rebuild their lives are leading to even more pointless jail time.

“The government has found £1.3bn for new prisons, but community schemes across the country providing vital support for women in trouble battle to survive. The promised strategy on women in the justice system, and a current review of probation contracts, are an opportunity to start to repair the damage done by Chris Grayling. The government says it wants evidence based change. The evidence on this could not be clearer—good community provision works better than prison for women involved in minor offending, and the children they are often responsible for.”