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Women Offenders: Sentencing

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 24 February 1999

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asked Her Majesty's Government:To what they attribute the rise in the women's prison population between December 1992 when it was 1,353 and December 1998 when it stood at 3,066. [HL1097]

The number of prisoners is determined by the numbers sentenced to imprisonment by the courts and the average lengths of the sentences given.The courts are more likely now to use custodial penalties for females than they were. The proportion of women aged 21 and over found guilty at the Crown Court who were given a custodial sentence increased from 24 per cent. in 1992 to 36 per cent. in 1997, and has been at 37 per cent. since April 1998. Sentence lengths have also increased, from an average 17.7 months for females aged 21 and over sentenced at the Crown Court in 1992, to 19.5 months in the year ending June 1998.There has been an increase in the number of females coming before the courts. The number sentenced to all types of disposals for indictable offences (including triable either way offences) at the Crown Court and at magistrates' courts increased from 40,000 in 1992 to 44,400 in the year ending June 1998.Part of the increase in the numbers sentenced may be explained by a reduction in the use of the caution. During 1992, 61 per cent. of females were cautioned for indictable offences, compared with 51 per cent. in the year ending June 1998.Between 1992 and 1998 the greatest increases in the number of females held as sentenced prisoners by offence were for drug offences (up by 208 per cent. from 260 to 800) and for robbery offences (up by 200 per cent. from 60 to 180). The increase in females sentenced for drug offences accounts for 45 per cent. of the total increase in female sentenced prisoners between 1992 and 1998 (figures for June in each year).Women still form only a small proportion, 4.9 per cent., of the total prison population and remain less likely than men to receive custodial sentences.

asked Her Majesty's Government:Whether they will commission research to examine the sentencing of women by courts. [HL1098]

The Home Office regularly monitors the sentencing of female offenders in England and Wales and information is published annually in Criminal Statistics, England and Wales. We also plan to publish a report later this year that will be a comprehensive overview of women and criminal justice.The Home Office has recently published a detailed study comparing the sentencing of men and women, aged 21 or over, for shoplifting, violence and drugs offences in 1991. The results were published in Home Office Research Study 170 and Research Findings 58 in July 1997.

asked Her Majesty's Government:What steps they intend to take to stem the increase in the female prison population.[HL1099]

It is for the courts to decide the appropriate sentence in any individual case, within the statutory limits set by Parliament. We believe that prison must be the right response for those who have committed serious offences and those who pose a danger to the public, such as violent, sexual or persistent offenders. However, prison should be used only where necessary and courts should use community penalties where this will adequately address the offending behavior.

We believe that the courts should have an effective range of sentencing options available to them and that is why we introduced new non-custodial penalties such as drug treatment and testing orders, action plan orders and reparation orders in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

It is obviously important that probation services should provide programmes suitable for women offenders. Under national standards, probation services are already required to periodically review whether they are providing a broad range of community service placements including sufficient places suitable for women.

In July last year the Lord Chief Justice laid down guidance which will help courts decide how to sentence offenders on the borderline between a custodial and non-custodial penalty. The new Sentencing Advisory Panel, established in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, may also be able to provide advice in this area.

asked Her Majesty's Government:What sentencing alternatives to custody suitable for women offenders are available to court. [HL1100]

A custodial sentence may be imposed only where the court is of the opinion that the offence is so serious that only such a sentence can be justified or where only such a sentence would be adequate to protect the public.Where the court is not of that opinion, a wide range of community and financial penalties are available for both male and female offenders.The 1996 report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Probation entitled

AReview of Probation Service Provision for Women Offenders reinforced the importance of probation services providing a full range of facilities appropriate for women. Some larger services provide "women only" offender programmes, although many are mixed. As part of the Effective Practice Initiative the Inspectorate will be considering how best to monitor provision for the supervision of women offenders in their future inspection arrangements. A programme for women offenders has been selected as one of the three "pathfinder programmes" under this initiative.