The magistrates’ courts most likely to send women to prison

Press statement

9 July 2013

Revealed: The magistrates’ courts most likely to send women to prison

Some magistrates’ courts in England and Wales are up to four times more likely than others to send a woman to prison, figures obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform reveal today (9 July).

Research by the charity shows that, on the whole, magistrates are handing down fewer jail terms to women than in previous years – but there is a striking disparity between sentencing rates in different parts of the country.

For example, magistrates’ courts in Cumbria imposed immediate custodial sentences in 2.7 per cent of the cases they heard during 2011. This was almost four times the rate recorded in criminal justice areas such as Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Northumbria and Wiltshire.

The figures suggest that, while many courts are making good use of community sentences which help cut crime and turn women’s lives around, other benches are imposing prison terms unnecessarily in some cases.

Overall, magistrates’ courts reduced their use of custody for women by a third between 2001 and 2011.

The maximum sentence that a magistrates’ court can impose is a six-month prison term, or up to 12 months in total for more than one offence.

The figures are to be discussed today (9 July) at the annual general meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on women in the penal system. The group was set up in 2009 under the chairmanship of Baroness Corston and with administrative support from the Howard League.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “We welcome the drop in the use of short prison sentences for women in recent years, but it remains the case that a woman convicted of a non-violent offence is more likely to go to prison than a man.

“Women who find themselves in court often need a lot of support.  They are often victims of crimes themselves such as domestic abuse or pimping.  Sending these women to prison for a few weeks is not the answer to the complex issues in their lives.

“We are concerned that legislation currently going through parliament may make the situation for women worse.  The Offender Rehabilitation Bill extends short prison sentences with a year of supervision in the community but it is unclear how specialist services for women will survive as the government seeks to privatise probation using large regional contracts that will squeeze out small local providers.”

Magistrates’ courts handed down almost 287,000 sentences to women and girls in 2011, imposing immediate custody in more than 4,300 cases (1.5%).

Four in five women were fined, and about 9 per cent of cases resulted in a community sentence.

In nine criminal justice areas in England and Wales, courts imposed prison sentences on women more frequently in 2011 than they did in 2001.

They were Avon and Somerset; Cumbria; Derbyshire; Hampshire; Northamptonshire; Surrey; Thames Valley; Dyfed-Powys; and South Wales.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice published statistics which showed that short-term prison sentences were failing to cut crime, whereas community sentences have a far better success rate.

Only 36 per cent of adults who began community orders between April 2010 and March 2011 went on to reoffend within a year. In contrast, 58 per cent of adults went on to reoffend after completing a prison sentence of 12 months or less during the same period.

Proportion of female defendants dealt with by magistrates’ courts in England and Wales who received immediate custodial sentences:

2001: 2.2%

2006: 1.8%

2011: 1.5%

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  2. The Howard League for Penal Reform obtained sentencing data through a freedom of information request submitted to the Ministry of Justice.
  3. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System will be meeting at 10.30am on Tuesday 9 July in Committee Room 2 of the House of Commons to hear this evidence and the meeting will be attended by MPs and Peers from all parties.
  4. In the 12 months to the end of June 2012, 81 per cent of women given a custodial sentence had committed a non-violent offence, compared with 71 per cent of men.
  5. In 2012, 60 per cent of women entering custody under sentence were serving jail terms of less than six months. Sixty-eight per cent of women were serving sentences of less than 12 months.
  6. In 2011, 26 per cent of women in prison had no previous convictions, compared to 12 per cent of men. The difference was even greater between those serving prison sentences of less than 12 months – 29 per cent of women and only 12 per cent of men.
  7. Sentencing data for each criminal justice area in England and Wales is shown in the table below:

Criminal justice area

Total sentenced

Immediate custody

%

Community sentence

%

Avon and Somerset

7560

111

1.5

836

11.1

Bedfordshire

2830

38

1.3

207

7.3

Cambridgeshire

3311

64

1.9

295

8.9

Cheshire

4744

74

1.6

460

9.7

Cleveland

4678

44

0.9

548

11.7

Cumbria

2523

67

2.7

334

13.2

Derbyshire

4143

84

2.0

475

11.5

Devon and Cornwall

5335

65

1.2

530

9.9

Dorset

2522

23

0.9

201

8.0

Durham

3337

35

1.0

321

9.6

Essex

7435

112

1.5

788

10.6

Gloucestershire

1877

29

1.5

212

11.3

Greater Manchester

18873

261

1.4

1739

9.2

Hampshire

7996

151

1.9

1059

13.2

Hertfordshire

5041

40

0.8

405

8.0

Humberside

6401

59

0.9

463

7.2

Kent

7144

103

1.4

749

10.5

Lancashire

9761

67

0.7

910

9.3

Leicestershire

4225

49

1.2

374

8.9

Lincolnshire

2870

21

0.7

210

7.3

London

45909

982

2.1

3302

7.2

Merseyside

11505

146

1.3

812

7.1

Norfolk

3176

44

1.4

296

9.3

North Yorkshire

2586

61

2.4

395

15.3

Northamptonshire

2976

60

2.0

295

9.9

Northumbria

12144

88

0.7

939

7.7

Nottinghamshire

6677

71

1.1

558

8.4

South Yorkshire

8808

110

1.2

820

9.3

Staffordshire

5664

78

1.4

441

7.8

Suffolk

3309

54

1.6

269

8.1

Surrey

3484

51

1.5

313

9.0

Sussex

6125

111

1.8

725

11.8

Thames Valley

7640

143

1.9

705

9.2

Warwickshire

2649

21

0.8

144

5.4

West Mercia

4915

59

1.2

447

9.1

West Midlands

15612

347

2.2

1127

7.2

West Yorkshire

10436

128

1.2

1033

9.9

Wiltshire

1761

13

0.7

219

12.4

Dyfed Powys

2202

33

1.5

228

10.4

Gwent

4086

42

1.0

355

8.7

North Wales

3490

33

0.9

438

12.6

South Wales

9193

147

1.6

811

8.8

TOTAL

286953

4319

1.5

25788

9.0

 

Contact

Rob Preece
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