For decades British Governments have been locking up criminals for 12 months or less, to watch them reoffend straight after they leave prison. Worse than that, the policy is costly, and holds little public confidence.
But when you look at how we treat women offenders, the situation is even worse.
Almost half of women serving 12 months or less will reoffend within the next year. And of all women in prison, 6 in 10 are there for six months or less; the vast majority of whom have committed non-violent offences. The last Government’s response was to increase the female prison population by 27% between 2000 and 2010.
We know what the real solution is. We’ve long called for an end to automatic penal sentences; using the money we would save on programmes which actually reduce reoffending, such as community sentences.
Even the last Labour Government, while ramping up the rhetoric and throwing ever more people in prison, recognised there was a problem. That’s why they commissioned the Corston Report to look at vulnerable women in the prison system and how they could be helped.
There was some movement: mandatory strip searching ended, more mental health workers attended court and centres which diverted women away from prison were established.
But the key concern, that huge numbers of women were automatically locked up in women only prisons, regardless of the effect it had on their lives, families and likelihood of reoffending, was not addressed.
Labour’s own fear that they would be seen as soft on crime was too great. There was no liberal instinct that policies should be solely based on what works for the individuals concerned: the women, their families, the victims and our wider communities. The Labour instinct of being ‘tough’ on law and order prevailed, to the detriment of thousands of people.
In Autumn 2011, Conference confirmed the Liberal Democrat commitment to implementing the key element of the Corston Review, with a view to closing women only prisons and introducing local custodial centres to reduce crime and give everyone a chance to get on in life.
Already, in Government, we’ve continued to support women’s centres. This year we’re spending £3.5 million to support the vital work they do, and prevent women from becoming trapped in a life of crime.
But for the first time, the UK Government has announced a shift in attitude to women offenders, in line with our policy. Rather than knee-jerk imprisonment, we’re moving to local community solutions focused on rehabilitation.
A new Ministry of Justice led Advisory Board will look into the details. As part of the plans:
- The use of community sentences will be considered, so women can be rehabilitated in the community, rather than just locked away.
- With over half of women offenders having been in care, community services will be looked at, to see how we can help people turn their lives around before prison is considered.
- The voluntary, private and public sectors will be involved to look at best practice, and the long standing Lib Dem commitment of locating women as close to their families and children as possible will be considered.
- And we will look at proper support for female offenders once they leave prison, so they can find housing, a job, education and treatment if necessary.
Frankly, this should have happened decades ago. We’ve wasted time, money and people’s lives.
But with Liberal Democrats in Government, we can stand tall and implement local community based solutions which focus on rehabilitation, cut crime and improve lives.
* Julian Huppert is Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge.