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Ask about children before sentencing, MPs and peers tell judges

By Monidipa Fouzder

Thousands of children are being harmed each year when their mothers are sent to prison, a cross-party group of MPs and peers has said, concerned about the lack of information that judges have to sentence appropriately.

The joint committee on human rights, in a report published yesterday, says judges must make reasonable enquiries to establish whether the defendant is the primary carer of a child. If the defendant is, the judge must wait until a pre-sentence report is available at the sentencing hearing, unless there are exceptional circumstances. The pre-sentence report must contain ‘sufficient’ information for the judge to be able to assess the impact of sentencing on the child.

Labour MP Harriet Harman, chair of the committee, said: ‘Judges can’t respect the human right of a child to family life if they don’t know the child exists. At the moment there is no guarantee that they have this information; there must be proper checks before sentencing.’

A mother-of-four, who went to prison for a non-violent crime, told the committee that she dropped her young children off at their schools, parked on a two-hour slot in front of the court, and within 15 minutes was sentenced to prison for three years. ‘Within a short space of time, my mothering roles, everything that I am as a woman, had been stripped and taken away’, she told the committee.

A 15-year-old girl told the committee that when her mother went to prison, ‘I was left with all the responsibilities of going shopping, running a house, everything really’. She said she became isolated ‘and started to go down a really bad route of drinking, getting into trouble, expressing anger’.

The Magistrates Association, which gave evidence to the committee, supported the need for sentencers to have detailed information about whether the defendant has children.

John Bache, the association’s national chair, said: ‘We agree that magistrates, unless there are exceptional circumstances, should not be sentencing people to immediate custody, including decisions following a breach of a suspended sentence order, without a pre-sentence report, especially if there are dependent children.

‘Exceptional circumstances may include situations where there is a recent pre-sentence report, when a verbal update from probation can be sufficient to assure the court that there are no relevant changes to an individual’s circumstances.’

A government spokeswoman said: ‘Putting women into prison can do more harm than good for society, often failing to cut the cycle of reoffending and exacerbating already difficult family circumstances. That’s why we are shifting the focus to robust community sentences where they can access a wider range of support, for example helping them with substance misuse and mental health problems.

‘But when women do go to prison, supporting them to maintain links with their children is vital which is why we are considering greater use of technology and day release.’

(Courtesy: Law Society Gazette)