12/11/2014 05:48 GMT | Updated 11/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Death Penalty for Women Offenders

This week I was the keynote speaker at the debate hosted by Halsbury's Law Exchange entitled "Women in prison: Is the penal system fit for purpose?" The evening was an opportunity to discuss the ongoing plight of women and children in the justice system. I once prosecuted a woman who injured her baby. She was young, lonely and vulnerable and she handled her baby too roughly. A support package was suggested by the defence. The judge sent her to prison for 16 months. He sentenced her below the guideline for the offence. She served half. She lost her child and her relationship and will have to live with the consequences of her actions for the rest of her life. She was 17. In my opinion the sentence was pointless. One argument is that she should have had more support before. The event was about discussing what to do with women and children like her, putting emotions to one side and thinking clinically about how to approach penal policy.

We had released a discussion paper beforehand which gave an overview of sentencing and penal issues. Joshua Rozenberg chaired an amazing panel: Jenny Earle, Director of Reducing Women's Imprisonment Programme at The Prison Reform Trust, Laura Janes, Acting Director for The Howard League for Penal Reform, The Rt. Hon. Lord Ramsbottom GCB CBE, former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Paula Harriott, Head of Programmes at ex-offenders charity User Voice, Simon Hughes MP & Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties and the Rt. Hon. Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the first President of the Supreme Court of the UK. Decades of research has shown that most women prisoners are victims of violence, abuse and addiction and that they (and their families) suffer inordinately in the current penal system. Women in custody are more likely to have mental health issues or drug dependency problems than men and are five times more likely to have a mental health problem than other women in the general population. Prison is often more harmful for them as women have higher rates of self-harm - they account for 43% of all incidents of self-harm despite representing just 5% of the total prison population. Reliable research on prison reform has found that prison sentences fail to address the multiple and complex needs of female offenders.

Successive Governments have said they are committed to diverting women away from crime and to tackling women's offending effectively. The conclusions in Baroness Corston's March 2007 report on "A Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System" of reducing the number of vulnerable women in prison has been openly supported but words are not enough. Action is necessary and the discussion centred around 4 stages:

(i) How to sentence a woman offender

(ii) Where to imprison women offenders and sometimes their children

(iii) How to treat women prisoners

(iv) What to do for women offenders on release

There is no specific sentencing regime applicable to female offenders. Magistrates send far too many women to prison for minor offending and do not produce written reasons in all cases so that the public are misinformed. There is no legal requirement for judges to investigate local support services before sentencing. Minister for Justice, Chris Grayling has acknowledged the need for women prisoners to be close to home. The former minister for female offenders Lord McNally announced that the Ministry of Justice was "Keeping women prisoners closer to home and giving them the skills to find employment so they turn their backs on crime for good are at the heart of significant reforms". It is a sensible viewpoint. Prison is more expensive than alternative measures. The average cost of a women's prison place in prison is approximately £56,415 per annum. By contrast, an intensive community order (that commands the confidence of the police and the courts) could cost approximately £10,000- £15,000. There are 120 prisons in England and Wales, 15 of which are contracted out to the private sector. Of those 120, there are 11 prisons for women holding 3,902 female offenders. Equality is about making sure people are treated fairly and have access to equality of opportunity. It does not always mean that everyone will be treated in the same way, but it recognises that individual needs can be met in different ways. Accordingly, women's prisons do not need to be the same as those for men. At present, women are more likely to be held in custody further away from home than men due to the dispersal of women's prisons across England, which makes it harder to maintain good links with housing providers. The UK Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has implemented a building programme for "super prisons" in the UK and to date, despite years of research and recommendations, there has been no announcement on community prisons for women. It is unarguable in my view that all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated at all times with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. These are matters of law. Why is there so much self-harm and suicide? Why are women are so often inadequately prepared for their release from prison without a stable home, secure employment or proper provision for childcare that they almost inevitably reoffend? This is not about the serious criminals but the vast majority of women who are disproportionately and harshly locked up for short sentences when their real issues are the men in their lives, emotional instability and a catalogue of unmet needs for themselves and their children. Clearly there is no single solution to all these questions but we had the chance to try and develop workable penal law and policy suggestions for the women and children in the system in the UK. We all took the view that public sympathy is with the women who are in effect sentenced to the equivalent of a death penalty whilst their children suffer the consequences. When they ask me - where were you Mummy when all these women were dying in prison, I will be proud to say I was at the HLE Debate and we didn't just talk about change we made it happen.