Scottish Lib Dems highlight “destructive” short prison sentences for pregnant women

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP has today revealed that dozens of pregnant women have served destructive short-term prison sentences in the last five years. He says that this einforces the need for the Scottish Government to press ahead with a presumption against jail sentences of less than 12 months.

He uncovered figures under freedom of information which reveal that since 2013 there have been 104 pregnant women in prison, of whom 31 gave birth while serving their sentence. Of these 104 women, 37 were given sentences of less than 12 months.

In 2012, the Scottish Government commissioned a report from former Prosecutor Dame Elish Angiolini highlighted the negative impact of custodial sentences on the children of offenders, something that affects many more women than men:

More women offenders have dependant children than men and only a small proportion (17 per cent) of children with mothers in prison live with their fathers while their mother is incarcerated. Approximately 30 per cent of children with imprisoned parents will develop physical and mental health problems, and there is a higher risk of these children themselves also ending up in prison.

Liam said:

The fact that 37 expectant mothers have been given destructive short-term sentences in recent years should have alarm bells ringing.

All the evidence shows that short-term sentences don’t work and are less effective than robust community-based disposals in reducing reoffending. Rates of reoffending amongst those who have served short stints in prison are sky high. That is why Scottish Liberal Democrats have consistently urged the Scottish Government to introduce a presumption against sentences of less than 12 months, something Ministers now accept would be a positive step.

If in the process it means more pregnant women pay for any crime they have committed through robust means short of prison then that has to be in everyone’s interests.

Of course, we also need state of the art care, mother and baby units and visiting arrangements in place for those women for whom prison is the only option. Positive contact can make a huge contribution towards their getting back on track.

While prison staff work very hard to make these difficult situations work, this is a heartbreaking way for children to start off in life and such experiences pose an inherent risk to their development. The Scottish Government’s commitment to giving every child the best start in life means ensuring that young children don’t pay for a parent’s wrongdoing.

In England, approximately 100 women give birth in prison and around 600 pregnant women are imprisoned. In 2016, a report by the charity Birth Companions highlighted the long term effects on the baby’s health because of the stress on the mother during pregnancy:

Prison can be a stressful environment for pregnant women(Gallowayetal,2014; Corston, 2007; Price, 2005 and Abbott, 2014). Antenatal stress is found to increase levels of the hormone cortisol in the mother’s body, which, when it crosses the placenta, can affect the health of the baby, brain development, emotional attachment and early parenting interactions (Gerhardt, 2003; Unicef, 2012; APPG The First 1001 days, 2015).

There is also a growing body of evidence(Bergmanetal,2007;Gloverand O’Connor, 2002; Glover et al, 2010; Capron et al, 2015) to show that the children of mothers who were stressed antenatally are more likely to develop childhood emotional and behavioural di culties, autism and ADHD.

There can be few more stressful environments than prison, particularly if the mother is anxious about getting a place in a Mother and Baby unit, or knows that she will be separated from her baby shortly after birth.

It’s good that Liam has drawn our attention to this. It’s important that women and their children are treated fairly and in a way that minimises the chances of reoffending.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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