The criminal justice system should ask itself whether it is unjust towards women, a senior judge warned tonight.
Speaking at the annual Longford Lecture, Baroness Hale questioned the shocking rise of women in prison and the damage caused to vulnerable families.
She highlighted that:-
• In 1960 there were 900 women in prison, in 2005 there are 4,600
• A woman convicted of theft or handling at Crown Court is now twice as likely to go to prison than in 1991
• Although women make up just over six per cent of the prison population, they account for 15 per cent of prison suicides
• Fewer than half the women remanded into custody subsequently received a prison sentence
• More than half the suicides in prison in 2004 were committed by prisoners on remand, often a short time following admission
She warned that the Criminal Justice Act 2003 introduces three different types of short sentence including intermittent sentences trailed as suitable for women offenders with family responsibilities as the sentence is divided between prison and community.
“The concern is that welfare-minded courts – mainly the magistrates’ courts – will see the new disposals as especially suitable for women and impose them instead of pure community sentences, so that the use of custody might actually go up rather than down,” she warned.
“The family justice system is asking itself whether it is indeed unjust to fathers. The criminal justice system could also ask itself whether it is indeed unjust to women,” she concluded.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “This stark warning from a top judge should make other members of the judiciary think twice before sending women offenders to jail rather than handing down a community sentence or diverting them into drug treatment of mental healthcare that so many badly need.”