Magistrates in the Thames Valley area are almost three times as likely to send a woman to prison as courts in other parts of England and Wales, figures reveal today.
The Howard League for Penal Reform, a charity which wants fewer people in prison, has released for the first time data which shows how sentencing rates for women vary from county to county.
It says the figures suggest that, while many magistrates’ 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.
Courts in the Thames Valley area imposed custodial sentences in 1.9 per cent of the cases they heard in 2011 – almost three times as often as benches in criminal justice areas such as Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Northumbria and Wiltshire.
The figures are to be discussed today 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: “It is disappointing to see more women being sent to jail in the Thames Valley area when the national trend has seen a welcome drop in the use of short prison sentences for women.
“We are also concerned that 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 in England and Wales 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% of cases resulted in a community sentence.
On average, magistrates’ courts reduced their use of custody for women by a third between 2001 and 2011.
But there were nine criminal justice areas where the rate of imprisonment increased over that period.
They were Avon and Somerset; Cumbria; Derbyshire; Hampshire; Northamptonshire; Surrey; Thames Valley; Dyfed-Powys; and South Wales.
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.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice published statistics which the charity says showed that short-term prison sentences were failing to cut crime, whereas community sentences have a far better success rate.
A total of 36% 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 the Thames Valley area who received immediate custodial sentences:
The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity which says it is ‘working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison’.