COURTS will be encouraged to send fewer women to jail in a bid to reduce the number of families that are destroyed when a mother is locked up.
The proposal to give female offenders community sentences rather than jailing them was announced by Justice Minister Helen Grant yesterday. She told The Independent that many "low-risk" female offenders would "benefit greatly from punitive, credible punishments in the community".
Women who are "bad and a risk to the public and society" should still go to prison, Grant insisted, but she urged the greater use of community sentences backed by curfews, tagging and unpaid work.
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Almost 4,000 women are currently in jail, less than five per cent of the 88,250 prison population of England and Wales. They include Vicky Pryce, jailed for eight months earlier this month after swapping speeding points with her ex-husband, Chris Huhne. Pryce was said to be struggling to cope in London's Holloway prison and was soon transferred to an open prison in Kent.
The Daily Telegraph points out that women are "far more likely" to suffer abuse, mental illness and self harm if they are incarcerated. The negative impact on families when a mother is sentenced to a prison term is also well established.
Grant said: "Many female offenders share the same depressingly familiar issues of abuse, drug and alcohol dependency and mental health problems. Women who commit crime should be punished, but we must not forget that a significant number have been victims during their lives, and need targeted support to break the cycle of offending."
To make sure fewer women are given custodial sentences, a new advisory body will be set up. It will include ministers and penal policy experts and will draw up proposals for the "robust" community sentences which aim to keep women out of prison. Grant insists the sentences will include "punitive elements" such as unpaid work.
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