Professor Julian Roberts introduced the topic with a stark statistic: In 2014, 5,600 women received custodial sentences for theft (including suspended sentence orders). He then raised some general questions about the use of imprisonment, referencing Professor Andrew Ashworth’s suggested reform some years ago that no property offence should result in imprisonment. Professor Roberts also questioned whether the custodial threshold contained in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 could be amended to prevent―in particular female―offenders being ‘pushed in’ to custody by reason of their previous convictions (as opposed to the seriousness of the offence. He also noted the limitations of risk calculation and the criticism that female offenders are punished on risk scales applicable to men; statistically, female offenders are of far lower risk than their male counterparts. Against that background, and with some interesting questions on the table, Professor Roberts handed over to the panel.
Mary Riddell, journalist for The Telegraph, introduced the panelists and offered some initial thoughts. Turning first to Frances Crook OBE, Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Riddell asked for some initial thoughts on women in prison. Crook, opting to stand and address the audience, stated that she wasn’t going to talk about women in prison ‘because [she doesn’t] think any women should be there.’ This set the tone for Crook’s address. She made a number of proposals to achieve that aim:
- No women should be sentenced to imprisonment: Few need detaining and those that do should be kept in an entirely different environment to prison.
- Remove the power of the magistrates’ court to impose custodial sentences as this would have a significant impact upon the numbers of women in prison.
- Support women’s centres.
Felicity Gerry QC, a barrister with an international practice, suggested that one key issue was the inappropriate criminalisation of women. She began by saying that ‘the system is rubbish for the vulnerable’ and that it ‘doesn’t deal with women properly.’ Clearly, the panel were of the view that some significant reforms were necessary to level the playing field. Gerry raised many issues, but perhaps the most interesting was the idea that while the system is happy to take days and weeks over hearing evidence in relation to a trial, there is pressure to deal with a sentencing hearing ‘in 20 minutes’ and that evidence wasn’t routinely called. Her suggestion was clear: sentencing hearings should be given more time and perhaps more importance, and the judge shouldn’t sentence until he or she has the necessary information about, for example the effect of imprisonment upon any dependent children.Finally, Nick Hardwick, current head of the Parole Board and former Chief Inspector of Prisons, observed that although the title of the conference surrounded ‘contemporary dilemmas’ in criminal justice, as far as the panel were concerned, there was no dilemma: the system sends too many women to prison and sends too many women to the wrong place within the prison estate. He reflected upon a visit to a women’s prison, noting that it was ‘tangibly different’ to a male prison and that it was obvious that female prisoner’s needs were also ‘tangibly different.’ Candidly, Hardwick described the visit as personally ‘shocking.’ He focused upon the self-harm rates in male and female prisons and suggested that the data appeared to link the rate of self -harm incidents to staffing levels (most notably, staffing cuts). In a more reflective way, Hardwick considered the political landscape and noted that reform opportunities exist that didn’t before, principally, he suggested, because the government was talking about prison reform and not being attacked by the opposition.
This led to the question and answer session which centred on the issue of the public, the media, and potential methods of marshalling government support for what on any view would be a radical reform agenda, even in light of Michael Gove’s statements on the future of the prison service in England and Wales. Pryce suggested what was necessary was that a politician from the right take up the mantle and in doing so would be more likely to ‘take the papers with him.’ To a certain extent that seems to be already in place with Gove’s more public engagement with the press on prisons in recent months.As ever, the panel―and the audience―could have continued debating what was always going to be a lively and interesting topic of discussion. While the panel were in broad agreement as to the problems with the current system, the proposed solutions were varied but surprisingly not all centred around ploughing more money into the system.