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Wednesday, June 16, 1999 Published at 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK


Women 'unnecessarily jailed', says charity

Many women inmates are serving short terms

Women offenders are being jailed when many could be serving community sentences, says a leading prison reform charity.

The Howard League says the number of women being jailed in England and Wales has doubled in the past decade at great expense to the taxpayer.

This is despite legislation which directs courts to jail people only for very serious offences.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons has also said only 30% of women in prison need to be there.

Most women in prison are serving very short sentences, with more than 60% having sentences of less than six months.

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The report recommends targeting resources at projects for women on community service sentences.

Jail terms are estimated to cost £421 a week, compared with £33 a week for someone on a community sentence.

Research also shows women are less likely to re-offend if they serve community sentences rather than custodial ones.

The report, Do Women Paint Fences Too?, surveyed probation services in England and Wales about the provision of community service in the UK.

It found that community service orders were being "consistently underused" for women offenders.

The orders can be made on anyone over 16 in place of a custodial sentence.

Instead of going to jail, they perform supervised work in the community.

Reluctant courts

Many probation units said women tended to be treated as anomalies, and a lack of resources made it difficult to develop services for any minority groups.

One assistant chief probation officer said: "The scheme is designed for, and mainly caters for young, fit, white men. Women still do not fit easily within it and they are always very visible."

Report author Charlotte Day said it appeared courts were reluctant to give community sentences because of three main reasons:

  • They were more likely to regard women offenders as needing treatment because of stereotypes about female behaviour
  • They were unaware of the diversity of placements and presumed community service involved heavy labour
  • They feared community sentences were not viable for women with caring responsibilities

The public also needed reassurance about community service orders so courts would feel more confident in using them, she said.

The Howard League says jail can be very damaging for women. For many, it means their children are forced into care for a short period.

It believes community orders can have a positive effect, not only in improving community life, but in developing offenders' job skills and self esteem which can aid rehabilitation.

National priority

Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, said: " No woman who could safely serve her sentence in the community should be sent to prison.

"Community service offers exciting opportunities for women to pay their debt to the community safely and cheaply.

"We call on the government to make the development of effective community sentences for women a priority."

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