Human rights committee call for urgent reform over sentencing mothers to prison

Parliament’s human rights committee has called for urgent change on the issue of sending mothers to prison, saying the needs of their children have been too often neglected.

After taking evidence in hearings on the subject, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has table a wide-reaching report which calls on the Government to “act to end irreparable harm caused to children whose mothers are in prison”.

Each year, an estimated 17,000 children in the UK are separated from their mothers when they are sent to prison, the vast majority for non-violent offences.

“Children whose mothers are sent to prison are more likely than their peers to have future problems,” the report says.

“These include an increased likelihood of criminal offending, mental health problems and drug and alcohol addiction.

“They are also likely to earn less than their counterparts as adults and stop education at a younger age than is the norm.

“They are more likely to die before the age of 65.”

The committee said urgent reform was required in four areas to improve the problem: data collection, sentencing, support for affected children, and pregnancy and maternity.

The report’s chief recommendations included that sentencing judges should establish whether the offender is the primary carer of a child. If the offender is a primary carer, the judge must not sentence unless a pre-sentence report addressing these issues is available.

Judges should also ensure they have adequate information about the likely consequences of separation of the child from his or her primary carer, including interviewing the child if appropriate, the report recommended.

The committee also called for courts to recognise that the impact of sentencing on children must be “a distinct consideration to which full weight must be given by the courts”.

On pregnancy and maternity, the report recommends that, other than in exceptional circumstances, if a baby is born during the mother’s sentence, they should both be discharged from hospital directly to a Mother and Baby Unit (MBU).

When a mother with a baby is sent to prison, the sentence should not start until a place is secured in an MBU.

“The right of a child to family life is only given lip service when their mothers are sent to prison,” committee chair Harriet Harman said in a statement.

“The harmful effects of a mother going to prison start at sentencing and continue for years, even after the mother is released.”

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