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Short Prison Sentences for Women

Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2021

We want fewer women serving short sentences in custody and more managed in the community. We welcome the fact that, in the decade between 2010 and 2020, the female prison population has decreased by 21%. We have also seen a 32% fall in sentences of less than 12 months in the five years since 2016.

I raised this issue four years ago in Westminster Hall with one of the Minister’s predecessors. Short prison sentences for women have a huge impact on society. Children of women offenders are more likely to be in care. Women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence. When they leave the prison gate, they are locked in the same cycle that brought them there. Will the Minister now launch an urgent review of the way that women are treated in the justice system?

The hon. Gentleman speaks with great passion on this matter and I do understand where he is coming from, but that is precisely why we have put in place £46 million of wraparound support over three years for women leaving prison or serving community sentences, to address some of the root causes, such as accommodation, substance misuse, education, training and employment, financial management and family relationships.

An estimated 17,000 children are affected by maternal imprisonment every year, yet the sentencing guidelines are designed to ensure that judges and magistrates consider sole or primary carer status as a mitigating factor, and research by Crest Advisory suggests that awareness and application of these guidelines is low. We recognise that the number of women in prison has fallen in recent times, but with the majority of women serving short sentences for non-violent offences, what will the Minister do to cut these numbers even more by ensuring that the rights of the child are explicitly considered in every case where a primary carer is sentenced to custody?

First, may I put on record that I am sad that the hon. Gentleman is standing down at the next general election? He has been very constructive in our engagements to date on these important matters.

The care of children and other dependants and the impact of the loss of a parent or carer are well-established mitigating factors in sentencing. Sentencing guidelines issued by the independent Sentencing Council include as a specific mitigating factor being the

“sole or primary carer for dependent relatives”

and are clear that the court can consider the effect of the sentence on the health of the offender and the unborn child. The case law in this area, particularly R v. Petherick, makes clear that the court must perform a balancing exercise between the legitimate aims to be served by sentencing and the effect the sentence has on the family life of others, especially children.