Some women prison terms 'unnecessary', says charity

A woman opening a door in a prison The government wants more alternatives to custody

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Magistrates in England and Wales are imposing prison terms for women "unnecessarily in some cases", a prison reform charity has said.

The Howard League for Penal Reform said community sentences were more effective in reducing re-offending rates than custodial sentences.

A report said courts in Cumbria, North Yorkshire and the West Midlands were "most likely" to send women to prison.

Chief executive Frances Crook said many of the women needed support.

She added: "They are often victims of crimes themselves such as domestic abuse or pimping.

"Sending these women to prison for a few weeks is not the answer to the complex issues in their lives."

Figures obtained from the Ministry of Justice through a Freedom of Information request by the charity showed magistrates handed down almost 287,000 sentences to women and girls in 2011, imposing immediate custody in more than 4,300 cases (1.5%).

The figure had dropped from 2.2% in 2001.

'Strong family unit'

In nine criminal justice areas in England and Wales, courts imposed prison sentences on women more frequently in 2011 than they did in 2001, the charity said.

They were Avon and Somerset, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Surrey, Thames Valley, Dyfed-Powys and South Wales.

In Cumbria, courts imposed the highest percentage (2.7%) of immediate custodial sentences.

Cumbria police and crime commissioner Richard Rhodes said: "We do know the path to rehabilitation after prison is heavily dependent on the existence of a strong family unit.

"I suspect that when women go to prison, that's the short route to a complete disintegration of a family unit with children taken into care, that sort of thing. So there are probably special issues with sending women to prison as opposed to men."

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