Jailing of most mothers for non-violent crimes should stop, says report

The imprisonment of many mothers serving sentences for non-violent and relatively minor crimes should be ended and community women’s centres used instead, according to research that has found separation can increase the risk of children being exploited and cost hundreds of thousands of pounds for just a single case.

A report from UK crime and justice consultancy Crest Advisory, called Counting the Cost of Maternal Imprisonment, has tracked the impact of the imprisonment of mothers on both them and their children and, for the first time, worked out the financial cost.

One of the cases that was tracked involved a mother convicted for drug possession with intent to supply. This led to her child being placed in care in a placement the child is at high risk of absconding from. The cost of imprisoning the mother and providing care for her child while she was incarcerated was almost £265,000.

Along with the devastation felt by mothers about being forcibly separated from their children, the impact on their children can include school exclusion, suicide attempts, increased vulnerability to exploitation, mental health issues and youth crime.

The Ministry of Justice does not collect comprehensive data on how many imprisoned women have children or on the number of children affected by maternal imprisonment. It is thought that the total could be as many as 17,000 children each year in England and Wales.

Only 4% of the prison population is female. The majority of women are jailed for non-violent offences. In 2020 72% of women were imprisoned for non-violent offences and 70% sentenced to less than 12 months in prison.

Some mothers hid the fact that they had children from social services when other family members were caring for them for fear that officials would put their children into care.

The research includes interviews with mothers who have been in prison, adults who describe the long-term impact of them of having their mother imprisoned during their childhood and various professionals and charities working with women in prison.

The report also conducted the first comprehensive polling of public attitudes towards the imprisonment of mothers.

More than half of a nationally representative sample of 2,573 adults polled in August 2021 said that funds earmarked for 500 new women’s prison places should be diverted to supporting more women with convictions in the community and three-quarters said that children separated from their imprisoned mothers should be offered counselling. However, more than a quarter said their support for a custodial sentence for a non-violent sentence increased if the woman was a mother and more than a third said that their opinion didn’t change if the woman was pregnant at the time.

The report recommends that mothers should only be imprisoned as a last resort with community-based women’s centres used as an alternative for many women with convictions along with intensive support for children whose mothers are imprisoned.

Julia Pitman of Crest Advisory, co-author of the report with Jessica Hull, said of imprisoning mothers. “Ultimately it is children who pay the highest price, left with the trauma of separation, which can have devastating consequences. Rather than building more prison places for women, the government must implement its own female offender strategy and invest in community alternatives that will keep families together.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “While our view remains that custody should be the last resort for most women, a decision which is made by independent judges, we have made significant improvements to support female offenders.”

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