Speech: End Short Term Prison Sentences

Need For Investment In Support Services

By Office of Wera Hobhouse Gourley, Feb 25, 2019 12:02

The recall of female offenders has gone up by 131% in the last twelve months since this Government introduced mandatory post-custody supervision...

The reasons for the dramatic increase in recall rates are complex but there is a common theme – community support services, which were once lifelines for recently released offenders, are no longer available.

Women offenders are far more likely to be convicted for nonviolent offences, which means that the majority, 72%, are serving sentences of less than a year.

Despite the secretary of state’s acknowledgment that short-term sentences “do more harm than good”, they are still being issued in their thousands. The inability to join up vision and implementation, is mirrored in the startling figures which illustrate the failure of the new post-custody system.

Women who end up in prison too often come from a background of systematic violence. Current research suggests that 57% of female offenders have suffered domestic violence and 53% have experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse during childhood.  Furthermore, research suggests that prison isn’t an effective deterrent for women, with 61% who are inside for less than twelve months, going on to be reconvicted within one year of being released. 

Recent recall numbers illustrate how our system fails female offenders who come from backgrounds of trauma. In the Prison Reform Trust’s new research paper, they found that 19 out of the 24 women interviewed said they received no support from support officers to address the complicated, and interlocking, issues they faced once they left prison. These issues include a struggle to find accommodation, to identify services to combat drug or alcohol abuse, to reunite with children who have been taken into care following a mother’s incarceration along with other steps that need to be taken to re build a life.

The ideas that were behind the extension of post-custody mandatory supervision, were sound and suggested that this Government was interested in rehabilitating, and not just punishing, offenders.

However, these good intentions have been smashed to pieces against a consistent and deliberate refusal to fund services which are meant to support people transitioning from prison.  Many must wait for weeks after release to start receiving benefits. Universal Credit claims must be made online, which isn’t possible for most inmates.

According to HM Inspectorate of Probation, one in seven short-term inmates leave prison without knowing where they are going to sleep that night, and only a small proportion find suitable accommodation on the day of release.

One woman recalled to prison and interviewed for the Prison Reform Trust Report said:

“Being a homeless woman is so degrading. They will send me out to no housing. It’s a big, ‘recall me’ sign on my forehead. I have no excitement about going out. I got no place to go and an ex-partner who is very violent.”

It’s a bleak situation – made worse when you recall the fact that two thirds of female offenders have dependent children and one third are single parents. 95% of those children of single mothers who are sentenced to prison time are taken into care - further perpetuating a cycle of neglect and trauma.

Although female prisoners make up less than 5% of our prisoner population, the dramatic increase in recall rates proves that our current system is failing them. There is something clearly wrong with a system that has female offenders who have served short sentences – only a few months – for nonviolent crimes and end up being recalled for many more months, because they have missed appointments with their support officer due to homelessness.

Centrally this issue cannot be separated from the continued use of short-term sentences which are destructive and do not work as a deterrent to crime. There needs to be a presumption against the use of short-term sentences and increased use of non-custodial punishments.

Additionally, if we believe, as a society, that our prisons should act as rehabilitation as well as deterrents, then we must properly invest in support services. Leaving our ex-inmates to fend for themselves, whilst imposing strict regulations upon them, greatly increases their chances of reoffending. Testimonies suggest that some ex-inmates deliberately re-offend to be readmitted into the system – where they crucially have a roof over their heads.

This is not an easy problem to solve but with financial and political will something can be done.

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