Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Report slams 'unjust' jailing of women on remand

UK: Six out of 10 women sent to jail while they await trial are acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence, a report published today reveals. Introducing the report, Lady Kennedy QC calls for a complete review of the use of remand and bail for women saying it is "inhumane and unjust".

According to the Prison Reform Trust, the number of women in England and Wales remanded into custody has more than trebled over the last 10 years - even though more than 75% of their offences are non-violent or minor. It is now almost four times the comparable rate for men.

In 2002, more than 1,200 women were received in prisons in England and Wales and two-thirds were on remand. The majority are vulnerable women, many have mental health or drug problems and 71% have never received a prison sentence before.

Detention results in many being separated from their children, often when they are the sole carer. Frequently they find themselves with financial problems and increased psychological stress as a result of their prison experience. Many harm themselves while inside and 11 have killed themselves this year.

Lady Kennedy said the system lacked safeguards.

She said: "Something has gone very wrong with our criminal justice system when almost two-thirds of the women who entered prison in 2002 were held on remand."

"Fewer than one in 10 of these women were facing charges for violent offences. More women were sent to prison for shoplifting than any other crime. When their cases were heard, under half of the women remanded in custody received a prison sentence. One in five was acquitted altogether. They were, however, in jail long enough to disrupt lives often already marred by chaos and distress."

The report, Lacking Conviction: The rise of the women's remand population, says that four out of 10 women had received help or treatment for mental health in the year before being sent to prison and a quarter had injected drugs in the month before they were placed in custody. It claims that once in prison women do not get the drug treatment or mental health care that they require, they are confined to their cells for long hours and have limited opportunities to stay in touch with family. It suggests that the provision of bail information has broken down in many prisons.

The report's author, Kimmett Edgar, said: "There is consensus among government, the courts and prisons that the best way to reduce women's offending is ... by improving mental health services, tackling drug abuse, improving family ties and supporting young women."

Holly Dustin, the Fawcett Society's criminal justice policy officer, said: "The use of prison for damaged and vulnerable women awaiting trial for non-violent crimes is unjust. The government needs to act now to improve services for women in the community."

Rachel Lipscomb, chair of the Magistrates' Association, said: "The change in mental health provision over the past decade cannot be ignored. Magistrates are very aware of the need for an increase in provision and improvement in the quality of court-based diversion schemes for women with mental health problems."

By Audrey Gillan posted 7 September 04


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