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13 Jul 2020

Howard League briefing shows it is time to rethink remand for women

The Howard League for Penal Reform is working for major changes to the way courts make decisions about remanding women to prison – as figures reveal that almost two-thirds of women denied bail and sent to prison by magistrates go on to be found not guilty or do not receive an immediate custodial sentence.

In a briefing published today (Monday 13 July), the charity shows how thousands of women are being sent to prison unnecessarily, damaging them and their families, including the children who depend on them, and piling more pressure on prisons and the wider criminal justice system.

The vast majority of women awaiting trial or sentence could safely be released on bail, but the number of women being held in prison on remand has been growing. At the end of 2019, the number of remanded women in prison in England and Wales was 21 per cent higher than at the end of the previous year.

Last year, prisons recorded almost 2,000 incidents of self-injury by women on remand – the highest number for eight years. Although a person can only be held in police custody if they have been assessed as fit to be detained, there is no such requirement for those being remanded to prison.

The figures indicate that measures introduced eight years ago, to reduce the use of remand, are not working. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 restricted the circumstances in which bail could be refused, but this has not succeeded in preventing unnecessary remands of women.

The briefing, Reset: Rethinking remand for women, highlights the need for remand decision-making to be rethought and reformed to enable judges and magistrates to take a distinct approach to women.

In order to make fair and appropriate decisions, judges and magistrates require guidance and good information about the people appearing before them, particularly women, and about the services they can access in the community.

The Howard League is working for significant legislative and practice reform to ensure that women are only remanded to prison in the most exceptional and serious cases.

As the courts begin to return to normal following the lockdown, the need for vigilance to reduce the number of people entering the prison system remains critical. The charity has written to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and the Director of Public Prosecutions to encourage anxious scrutiny of all decisions in relation to remand and prosecution.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The presumption of innocence and the right to liberty are fundamental principles of a fair criminal justice system.

“Remanding someone to custody runs contrary to these principles and so should be an exceptional measure, but every day women are being sent to prison unnecessarily.

“It is time to push the reset button. If women must be prosecuted and brought to court, we must do all we can to ensure they stay with their families and out of prison.

“A new approach that meets women’s needs instead of penalising them would reduce crime and benefit everyone.”

Ministry of Justice statistics show that women on remand make up almost half of the women received into prison, accounting for 3,236 of the 7,050 first receptions in 2019.

In the same year, 65 per cent of women remanded to prison and subsequently dealt with by the magistrates’ courts did not go on to receive an immediate custodial sentence. In the crown courts, it was 40 per cent.

Foreign national and Black, Asian and minority ethnic women are even more likely to be remanded without sufficient reason. Ministry of Justice data show that, in magistrates’ courts last year, 59 per cent of white women remanded in custody did not go on to receive an immediate prison sentence, compared with 73 per cent of Black women, 79 per cent of Asian women, and 78 per cent of women recorded in the ‘Chinese and other’ group.

The briefing also reveals how, under a law redolent of Victorian values, too many women are remanded to prison for their ‘own protection’ – even where their alleged offence cannot be punished with imprisonment.

This provision, under the Bail Act 1976, allows judges and magistrates to use prison as a ‘place of safety’, even though prison is not safe for those in crisis and prison officers do not have specialist training to support women in such circumstances. The Howard League is doing further work on legislative reform in this area.

Remand to prison can have a devastating impact on families. Most remands happen immediately following arrest and, in these circumstances, women brought directly from the police cells to court routinely have no opportunity to make arrangements for any children or dependants they care for.

As remand can last several weeks or even months, a woman can lose her job and her home and there is a real risk that her children will be taken into care. Without knowing when she will be released, it is difficult to plan ahead, particularly when trying to secure somewhere to live.

Women who have been remanded but go on to be acquitted or sentenced to a community order do not receive compensation. Nor do they receive a discharge grant or travel warrant to support them to return home safely on release.

The high number of remands also puts more pressure on prisons, which must deal with the ‘churn’ of women moving in and out through their gates. Significant resources are needed to process their reception, induction and release, and it can prevent prison staff from having time to work constructively with the sentenced women in their care.

The briefing states that better oversight is needed to scrutinise remand decisions and identify poor practice. It recommends more guidance and training for judges and lawyers, as recent research has found that the law at remand hearings may not be fully understood by all who have to apply it.

The briefing also recommends that more information about a woman’s circumstances should be provided at her remand hearing. In a sentencing hearing, if a judge or magistrate is considering imprisonment, they must obtain a pre-sentence report unless it is considered unnecessary; in remand hearings there is no requirement to obtain a comparable report.

Most remand hearings last less than five minutes, and lawyers representing women frequently have to prepare their submissions at extremely short notice, with little time to speak to their client.

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  2. Reset: Rethinking remand for women can be downloaded from the Howard League website.
  3. The briefing draws on evidence presented to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, as well as research, prison inspection reports and policy materials. The Howard League has also engaged with others working in the system, including lawyers, magistrates and district judges.
  4. The Howard League’s letters to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and the Director of Public Prosecutions have been published, together with all other publications concerned with the response to the coronavirus pandemic, on the charity’s website.
  5. In addition to its work on sentencing and remand, the Howard League is campaigning to reduce the number of arrests of women. More information about this programme can be found on the charity’s website.


Rob Preece
Campaigns and Communications Manager
Mobile: +44 (0)7714 604955

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