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Why do we imprison mothers for crimes like tampering with an electricity meter?

Penelope Gibbs
11 Aug 2017

Mostly I retain faith in the humanity of all who work in the criminal justice system. But sometimes I have doubts. A report on mothers sentenced to short prison terms gave me grave doubts – either those involved in their sentencing did not have the information they needed, or they did, and they were (seemingly) heartless in using prison.

Lucy Baldwin and Rona Epstein interviewed 17 women who had served sentences under twelve months. Nearly all were imprisoned for non-violent crimes – two for not paying their council tax (not in fact a crime), one for tampering with her electricity meter, because she could not afford to pay for fuel.  One was in for “fencing” (handling stolen goods), and another for fraud – she bought Christmas presents for her children online using someone else’s account.  These women were primary carers for 41 children in all when they were imprisoned, and three of them were pregnant at the time. Mandy, who was pregnant, and looking after her four year old son, went to court for her first appearance, and was unexpectedly remanded in custody, suspected of handling stolen goods: “they did not take into account my circumstances, I even told the court I had my son at school who didn’t know where I was – they said they would let me ring a relative or phone social services, there was no regard for how this might affect my son – none.” She was convicted and sentenced for 9 weeks.

The testimony of the women suggests that a short sentence can be just as disruptive, even traumatic, as a long sentence. All the women had to arrange for their children to be cared for – in two families the eldest (17 year old) daughter looked after their siblings, while in other cases grandmothers or fathers stepped in. Months after release one mother was still dealing with the effects: “the little one has nightmares. I think my middle one is using cannabis. And my eldest daughter is old beyond her years because she had to look after her sisters when I was away. My middle daughter is still angry with me, but we’re getting there.”

I could go on, the stories are so sad. Some would say, so what- “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”, and point out that most offenders’ families suffer because of their imprisonment. Why should mothers of young children get more lenient sentences?

I, and many others, feel that our whole sentencing regime is overly punitive. And most who work with offenders (including many police and prison governors) think short prison sentences are totally pointless. When it comes to imprisoning mothers of school age children, short prison sentences seem cruel as well as pointless. I’m not criticising the legality of the sentences mentioned in the report – they all (apart from imprisonment for council tax) seem to abide by sentencing guidelines. But a cursory glance suggests they could all, legally, have been dealt with by a community sentence instead. Particularly since the Article 8 rights of the child are affected by their mother’s imprisonment. Any judge, who wants to avoid using a prison sentence, can cite Article 8 in support of that decision (as long as it is still within current sentencing guidelines).

One just hopes that the stories in this report are exceptional, rather than typical – that few would mete out a 9 week prison sentence for benefit fraud to a mother of twins aged two and a three year old. But 72% of women in prison are serving sentences of six months or less.  So we need somehow to curb the use of short sentences. Better training of lawyers, judges and magistrates is part of the answer, as is a legal presumption against the use of short sentences. But we also need a new narrative which acknowledges that prison is a dead end, and punishment (though valued in other ways) does not reduce crime.