The Independent

'Keep women out of jail' says Home Office

By Jo Dillon, Political Correspondent
The Independent
19 May 2002

Women should not be jailed for offences such as shoplifting and not paying fines, the Home Office said last night.

The Government is determined to reduce the spiralling female prison population and is in the process of setting up a special justice board to deal with women offenders.

The body, which is to include ministers and representatives from the prison and probation services, will bring in new ways to look after the special needs of women once they are in prison. But Home Secretary David Blunkett has made it clear that ending prison sentences for women, particularly those with young families, is in many cases desirable.

The proposed reforms come as the outcry over the jailing of mother-of-two Patricia Amos, now serving a 60-day jail term in Holloway Prison, continues. She was locked up for failing to ensure her daughters, Emma, 15, and Jackie, 13, did not play truant from their Oxfordshire school. The Home Office is now looking at alternative community sentences for women, excluding those who are violent or persistent offenders.

"The Home Secretary is interested in finding possible alternatives to sending women to prison and thinks they might be better dealt with in the community for relatively minor offences," a Home Office source pointed out. "One of the key things with women offenders, in particular, is that quite often when a woman is imprisoned there is a very strong social and economic effect on her children. It can often result in the total breakdown of the family."

At present, 60 per cent of women in prison have children under the age of 18, many without fathers at home. In the past seven years the number of women in jail has doubled to almost 4,000, though only a few are in for Category A offences of violence. One third are first-time offenders.

Once jailed, the Government believes women need special attention. A new Correctional Services Board, to meet for the first time in July, will find ways of improving education in women's prisons to prevent re-offending and, crucially, to provide "emotional support".

Many women who are jailed suffer, disproportionately to men, from mental problems. This is thought to be made worse by enforced separation from their families. Minor offenders such as fine defaulters or those who have not bought television licences find it stressful to rub shoulders in prison with hardened criminals.

2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd