The Prime Minister’s wife paints a bleak picture of the ‘distress and despair’ filling Britain’s prisons, describing them as ‘harsh’ places for the mentally ill and condemning the separation of inmates from their children.
Booth, a barrister with a long-held interest in prison reform, speaks out before a major inquiry into women and crime is published on Wednesday. It is expected to attack the Government’s handling of female offenders, arguing that many are locked up unnecessarily and demanding clear instructions for the courts that those with children should be imprisoned only as a last resort.
Two-thirds of women in jail are convicted of ‘dishonesty’ offences, such as cheque-book fraud or shoplifting, and present no danger to the public, according to the Commission on Criminal Justice set up by pressure group the Fawcett Society. Yet the number of female inmates has soared by more than 170 per cent in a decade, fuelling prison overcrowding – and a spiralling suicide rate.
Vera Baird, the Labour MP and barrister who chaired the commission, yesterday blamed an ‘anti-feminist backlash’ in the courts, leading to women being treated more harshly. Her report will demand more use of community service instead of jail terms, backed by polling showing that more than two-thirds of the public back more community sentences for women.
Writing in The Observer today, Booth says that women offenders should not be treated with ‘kid gloves’, but warns: ‘Our prisons are full of distressed women who, rather than being career criminals or a danger to anyone … are inside because they have made some terrible mistakes or choices in their lives.’
Urging sentencers to take more heed of mitigating factors, such as mental illness, and use alternatives to custody, such as tagging, she adds: ‘Prisons … should be places of last resort for women whose offending is so serious that there can be no alternative to custody. I’m not sure … that is always the case.’ Booth also highlights the social consequences of jailing women, adding: ‘It can’t be right … that prison, for example, separates over 17,000 children from their mothers … this can only reinforce a cycle of poverty and crime.’
Booth was backed yesterday by Prisons Minister Paul Goggins, who has ordered a review of judges’ and magistrates’ training on so-called gender issues. He said women were not committing worse crimes than in the past, simply being punished more harshly – and warned magistrates that petty offences such as shoplifting should not lead to jail.
‘Many of the women now in prison could be dealt with through community sentences,’ he said. ‘Sentencers have become more severe: you’re three times more likely to get a custodial sentence in magistrates’ court than 10 years ago and two times as likely in the crown court.’