The unacceptable face of sentencing

Henry Fletcher is appalled by the rise in the number of women given prison sentences

In the last two years, there has been a 40 per cent rise in the number of women sentenced to custody. During 1994, the number of women jailed reached its highest level ever. That trend has continued during the last six months.

Last year 32 per cent of all women were jailed for less than 12 months and 33 per cent of all receptions into custody last year were for fine default.

Evidence from probation staff indicates that a majority of those jailed for theft and fraud committed the offences either to feed themselves and their children or to sustain a drug or alcohol habit.

Virtually all of this group are on benefit, in multiple debt and half of all women currently inside have dependant children. Last year 26 per cent of all women prisoners were black and excluding foreign nationals, 40 per cent of that group were jailed for theft or fraud.

An analysis of the data shows that there are acute differences in the way in which male and female offenders are dealt with by the courts. Forty-six per cent of men were jailed last year for offences of violence compared to 29 per cent of women. Conversely, just 11 per cent of men were jailed for theft, compared with 23 per cent of women.

In addition 35 per cent of women in jail have no previous convictions compared to 12 per cent of men. Finally of those received into custody, a quarter of the women were eventually jailed, compared to 42 per cent of the men.

During 1994, 3,700 women were remanded to jail. Fine defaulters account for a small number of the daily population, but one third of all female receptions annually.

The number of women jailed for fine default has increased by 66 per cent since 1989. Last year 260 of the total were TV licence evaders and a further 188 were jailed for the non-payment of poll tax.

In NAPO's (National Association of Probation Officers) view the dramatic increase in female prison numbers is expensive and unnecessary. Most of the women with convictions are in multiple debt and have dependant children. A small number have been convicted for violence against the person, particularly the younger women.

All the available evidence suggests that three quarters of those who have been given a short sentence commit offences of theft to feed themselves and their children or to sustain a drug habit.

These women are typical of those seen by probation staff over the last 12 months. A woman with two dependant children whose partner was recently killed in a road accident, was jailed for 14 days for TV licence evasion. Her children were taken into care; a twenty-year-old woman with a three-month- old baby, with no previous convictions was jailed for 56 days for theft involving £100; a 24-year-old woman with a toddler who was homeless and estranged from her parents who had shoplifted and had no previous convictions was sentenced to four months.

It is significant that over 80 per cent of the women are unemployed or on benefits. While this itself is not certain to lead to offences, when combined with debt, poor housing, strained relationships and in some cases, drug and alcohol abuse, it offers an explanation.

NAPO believes that the majority of women sentenced for theft and fraud could be more constructively supervised in the community.

The result would be a fall of 500 in the daily prison population and a saving of at least £1 million per month.