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Issue:- 11 July 2013

Merseyside magistrates urged to stop jailing women

MAGISTRATES on Merseyside are almost twice as likely to send a woman to prison as courts in other parts of England and Wales, figures reveal.  The Howard League for Penal Reform has released for the first time data which shows how sentencing rates for women vary from county to county.

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.  Merseyside courts imposed custodial sentences in 1.3% of the cases they heard in 2011 – almost twice as often as benches in criminal justice areas such as Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Northumbria and Wiltshire.

The figures were discussed 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 are 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%).

4 in 5 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 3rd between 2001 and 2011.  But there were 9 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 6-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 showed that short-term prison sentences were failing to cut crime, whereas community sentences have a far better success rate.

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

Green Party has condemned the plans to sell-off Royal Mail

RESPONDING to the announcement, on 10 July 2013, by Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable, that a majority stake in the Royal Mail would be sold off by the government, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett said:- "The privatisation of Royal Mail is the latest ideologically driven, disastrous step by this government which is doing nothing to start the essential reshaping of the British economy, but is determined to hand over the last bits of the family silver to multinational companies. The approach of privatisation has proved disastrous for our water system, disastrous for our electriCity and gas supplies, and particularly disastrous for our railways. Yet still the push towards it, from Margaret Thatcher through Tony Blair to David Cameron continues. Green MP Caroline Lucas, with her private members' bill to bring the railways back into public ownership is leading the way to reverse this trend. What we need is for the Labour Party to show that it has broken with its New Labour past and back it. That would add a sense of verisimilitude to Labour's criticisms in parliament today of the Royal Mail move."

Bennett offered congratulations to the CWU and the Royal Mail workers, who are resisting the government's attempts to buy them off with a share handout to staff. "They understand that privatisation is a devil's pact that inevitably results in damage to staff pay and conditions, cuts to services, and profits stuffed into shareholder's pockets, all too often through the conduit of tax havens."

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