14/03/2017 13:03 GMT | Updated 15/03/2018 05:12 GMT

Building New Women's Prisons Does Not Make Sense

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Ten years ago a radical change was called for in the treatment of women in the criminal justice system.

Rather than focusing on women in prison - there should, said Baroness Corston in her landmark report, be a concerted effort to help women at risk of offending before they were sent to prison.

Custodial sentences were to be reserved only for the most serious, dangerous offenders - ultimately reducing the women's prison population.

Existing women's centres - places where women with the most complex needs were given the support they needed to rebuild their lives and avoid becoming involved in crime - were held up as examples of good practice. They should be invested in and replicated across the country, she said.

Yet, a decade on the government has announced plans to spend £50 million on five new women's prisons. This is not the vision of the future hoped for back in 2007.

While it is welcome that the government has recognised the distinct needs of women and says it is committed to reducing the number of women offending, building new prisons is not the way to do it.

Women in the criminal justice system face considerable and multiple disadvantage. They have often been the victims of violent crimes like sexual and domestic abuse. They generally commit non-violent crimes related to poverty like handling stolen goods and shoplifting. They face a range of issues including homelessness, substance misuse and poor mental health. A third were in care as children.

Because they commit less serious crimes, most women serve very short sentences with little opportunity to address the underlying causes of their crimes so prison is ineffective in reducing re-offending.

Putting women in prison can also be hugely damaging for their children. Around 95% of children whose mothers are sent to prison have to leave their family home to go into care themselves or live with relatives - disrupting their childhoods and storing up problems for the future.

As Baroness Corston argued in 2007, prison is not the answer for most women who can be more effectively rehabilitated in the community. Women receiving community sentences have much lower re-offending rates than those sent to prison. The Ministry of Justice's own analysis shows a statistically significant reduction in re‐offending rates for those that receive support from women's centres.

To put this into a financial context, the annual cost of one prison place is approximately £42,765. This would support about 15 women on community orders or on diversion programmes. What's more, doing more to prevent women's offending in the first place could bring huge savings. Modelling by Revolving Doors Agency suggests that investing just £18m per year in women's centres could save almost £1billion over five years.

Yet these women's community services - of which there are too few to start with - are facing significant cuts. Which is why, at a time of limited resources, spending £50 million on prisons does not make sense.

Now, on its 10 year anniversary, is a good time for the government to reflect on the Corston Report and its recommendations.

Ministers have the chance to take really positive action to reduce the number of women in the criminal justice system. They can do this by reinvesting money allocated to building new women's prisons into strengthening services in the community which are proven to be effective.

This will not only change the lives of women at risk of offending and their families, but will also benefit society as a whole.

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