Julian Huppert MP writes…A credible alternative to prison has always been a Liberal Democrat priority

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 was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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  • Richard Wingfield 25th Mar '13 - 12:17pm

    I, too, welcome this statement from Helen Grant. Prison should be used very sparingly indeed for women offenders, and only where the offence was violent or sexual, or where the public need a level of protection from the offender that only prison can offer. However, I do have a number of concerns about this new policy:

    – Why has it taken three years (almost) for this to be done? The Coalition government took power in May 2010 and we are now nearly three years on before anything has come out of the Ministry of Justice. Why the delay?
    – Why is the policy so short? After three years, I would have expected a detailed and thorough plan with concrete measures and steps to be taken. Instead, there are just three pages of actual policy on the issue. As the Director of the Prison Reform Trust , has said, “History shows that, in the absence of specific legislation, commitments to address women’s different needs are often not realised, and momentum can be lost as ministers and officials come and go.” However, there are no legislative proposals in the policy. Why not?
    – If the government was serious about this issue, then why did the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Bill contain nothing to help women offenders? To quote from the Independent at the time, which in turn quotes, Baroness Corston, whose report you cite:

    “Baroness Jean Corston, Labour peer and author of the Corston Review – a 2007 report into vulnerable women in the criminal justice system, said it is “extraordinary” that the coalition put nothing in the LASPO bill about women, while disbanding the cross-departmental criminal justice women’s unit in Parliament. “It shows the Government’s insensitivity in relation to women,” she said. “If we treat people all the same in the prison system, that means we treat everyone as if they were men. It is blindingly obvious to me that most of these women should not be going to prison.”

    So, while welcoming this statement, I’m extremely disappointed that it is (a) so late, (b) so weak and without anything in legislation to back it up, and (c) difficult fully to accept the government’s good intentions given its complete inaction since coming to power, and actually ignoring Baroness Cortson during the passage of the LASPO Bill. Please prove me wrong Helen Grant!

  • Prison can’t be for punishment, it must be for public protection.

  • Stuart Mitchell 26th Mar '13 - 10:19am

    Heard it all before. Whatever happened to Ken Clarke’s “rehabilitation revolution” of a couple of years ago? Government policy seems to be to announce an initiative, do nothing for two years, then announce another initiative.

    As usual, the terrible reoffending rates for prisoners are presented in isolation, with no acknowledgement given that the reoffending rates for those receiving community sentences are abysmal too. A 51% reoffending rate (according to the MoJ’s 2011 study) doesn’t sound to me like the “real solution” you glibly claim community sentences are. Granted, it seems to work slightly better than short sentences, but then so do long sentences. The particular problem with short prison sentences is that they are not accompanied by rehabilitation; it’s not the prison sentence itself that is the problem.

    This issue is always presented as a false dichotomy. For me it’s not a question of prison vs rehabilitation – we need both, often for the same individuals.

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