Can we halve the number of women in prison?

This blog doesn’t often stray away from education but when it does it generally comments on issues relating to the justice system. This morning Simon Hughes, a Lib Dem government minister in the Ministry of Justice suggested he would like to see the number of women in prison halved from around 4,000 to presumably around 2,000. Is this achievable? Well, it has been achieved with young offenders.

Under the last Labour government the number of under-eighteens in custody hit 3,000 in August 2008. By September 2014 the figure was down to just over 1,000 and the number of males in youth custody actually dipped below the 1,000 mark in October 2014. Now even 1,000 may be too many, but there has been a real achievement on the part of the Youth Justice Board and the courts that has produced this dramatic reduction during the life of this parliament. Admittedly, this has been a period when crime has been falling both nationally and internationally, but that shouldn’t diminish the achievement of the criminal justice system.

Reducing the female prison population may be harder to achieve. Of the 4,000 or so women in custody in the autumn of 2014, about 10% were on remand. Only another 10% were on short sentences of six months or less, so even wiping out the sending to prison of this group wouldn’t achieve the 50% drop the Minister is seeking. And, there are those in this group where the sentence would have been greater but for an early guilty plea and perhaps a reduction in the offence charged between arrest and appearance in court.

So, to reduce the female prison population the Crown Court judges are going to have to cooperate since more than 3,000 of the women in custody are there because a Crown Court judge has sent them to prison. Indeed, more than 25% are serving sentences of four years or more or of an indeterminate length. Add in those with a sentence of 1-4 years and that accounts for more than half the total of women in prison.

Why are they there? 900 are there for crimes of violence, the largest single offence group to generate custodial sentences among women these days. Add in robbery – a violent crime and burglary and you probably account for a third of the women in custody. Interestingly, only 10% of women are there for drug offences and a similar percentage are in prison for theft and handling. Perhaps the group that might be looked at for non-custodial sentences are the 12% or so of the prison population incarcerated for a range of other offences. And, just like men, women between 25 and 49 make up the bulk of the prison population.

Stopping re-offending and preventing offending in the first place are likely to be the key factors in reducing the female prison population, just as they are for men and have been with young offenders. As the Minister points out, many in prison have mental health problems and tacking those through the NHS might well bring reductions in the numbers in custody. Whether Crown Court judges should be ordered to treat women found guilty of offences differently to men guilty of the same offence when it comes to sentencing is a debate worth having. It falls into the same category of whether someone that needs to drive for a living should be able to argue exceptional hardship when faced with a driving ban, as they can and do every day in our courts.

 

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Knife crime: do we need mandatory sentences?

There was a debate on the Today programme this morning about mandatory prison sentences for possession of a bladed instrument – to use the formal legal terminology – carrying a knife to you and me. A mother whose son had been killed while attending a party as a teenager was advocating not just prison for using a knife, but even for just carrying one; presumably as a means of deterring young people from so doing. Simon Hughes as the Minister had a difficult job talking about a policy on mandatory sentences advocated by one of his ministerial colleagues that his party leader has publically disagreed with.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a personal interest in knife crime for reasons I don’t need to discuss again in this post. However, as I have written in a piece for the Church Times, by coincidence published today, I am opposed to mandatory  prison sentences for carrying a knife or other bladed instrument. Unlike the mother interviewed on the Today programme, who dismissed the courts out of hand, I have more faith in the judiciary and the guidelines set down by the Sentencing Body and the higher courts, including the Supreme Court.

As well as being a victim of a knife crime, I also served for 20 years within the justice system, so I have considered this issue in my mind several times over the past few years. Draconian laws will have some effect. However, fishing is the most popular participation activity for men in this country, and it usually involves carrying a knife. Going on a summer picnic may involve carrying a knife to cut the cheese with or even the bread. Automatic prison sentences for carrying knives in these situations? There would presumably need to be the exception for those carrying on their trade, carpet fitters, chefs, and no doubt those that work in many other occupations and carry knives from place to place. So, perhaps we should just consider banning the carrying of knives by those under the age of eighteen, as we do with the sale of alcohol or cigarettes; and punish both the seller and the purchaser with prison? It would have an effect, but since even some in custody seem adept at creating bladed instruments from what is on hand in prison, it seems that where there is a will there is a way.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I prefer a different approach based upon education and earlier intervention. The Museum of Childhood ran an interesting exhibition on the subject of knife crime some time ago and their very readable booklet can be found at:  http://www.museumofchildhood.org.uk/__documents/teen_knife_crime_booklet.pdf (link no longer active – September 2018) What is clear is that social media and the internet have allowed those opposed to knife crime the opportunity to spread their messages as much as those that want punitive action.

I don’t condone violence whether with a knife, gun or a fist, but dealing with those with anti-social attitudes just by locking them up doesn’t completely solve the problem.  Compared with a decade ago, knife crime, and many other crimes, seems on a downward trend. I remain to be convinced that harsher sentences will assist in reducing knife crime still further in society.