By Edward Lowe, Policy & Communications Coordinator at Commonweal Housing
It is a sad and unjust fact that across England and Wales many innocent children become victims of the criminal justice system. Some 17,000 children a year are separated by their mothers’ imprisonment. Shockingly, only five per cent will remain in their family home during that imprisonment.
Where children are cared for by another family member it almost certainly means changing schools, and the thin geographical spread of women’s prisons will often mean fewer visits by children to see their mothers. This all too frequently results in a complete breakdown in family contact.
Once mothers have been released, a number of complex housing challenges then prevent them from being reunited with their children. For those who aren’t fortunate enough to be looked after by their family, their world often changes beyond comprehension.
Over the past ten years, Commonweal has been engaged in the Re-Unite project, working closely with organisations supporting women in the criminal justice system. Re-Unite tackled a ‘catch-22’ situation. Under current rules female offenders leaving prison cannot get priority housing if they’re not living with their children. However, without housing, their children cannot live with them. This doesn’t just keep mothers away from their children, it leaves them at increased risk of homelessness and re-offending.
This nonsensical situation could be avoided for many female offenders through the use of robust community-based alternatives to custodial sentences. Since the overwhelming majority of women in custody are on short-term sentences for non-violent crimes, there’s a strong case for the wider use of non-custodial sentencing options.
Current guidelines also make it clear that alternatives to custodial sentences should be considered when custody would be disproportionate in terms of its impact. However, in practice this rarely happens.
It’s therefore paramount that sentencing structures are far more focused on the best interests of the child, including an obligation that sentencers are presented in every case with child impact statements.
Having supported over 100 mothers and approximately 200 children, Commonweal is rightly proud of what Re-Unite has achieved. By supporting other organisations in the criminal justice sector, we’ll continue to promote a shift in policy ahead of the publication of the new female offenders strategy to ensure women are kept out of prison wherever possible.
Commonweal Housing has published a review of the Re-Unite project, alongside a series of recommendations on how the criminal justice system should develop in the future.