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The fair-er sex?

13 March 2015

THE cost of prison accommodation (£56,000 p.a. compared with £10-15,000 p.a. for a place on an intensive community order) means that there has to be a pretty good reason to send anyone to prison. But should there be an extra good reason to send women there?

The Justice Minister, Simon Hughes, thinks so. He believes that the number of women being sent to prison should be halved, because they are different from men, many having been victims themselves. "I met a woman in her twenties the other day who clearly ought to be sectioned," he said. "Her problem is a health problem, not a criminality one. Prisons shouldn't have to cope with that."

There are currently about 3800 female prisoners in England and Wales. Fiona Cannon, who chaired a task force on the subject in 2011, agrees with Mr Hughes. "Instead of a punishment of last resort," she says, "women's prisons are now seen as stop-gap providers of drug detox, social care, mental-health assessment and treatment, and temporary housing - a refuge for those who have slipped through the net of local services."

It is all making sense - dwellers in Guardianland are nodding sagely - until the radio phone-in lines start humming. There are men on the line, lots of them, saying that this is feminism gone mad. "So the only victims today are women?" they say. "Do me a favour!" But Mr Hughes stands his ground, insisting that women are a special case. "Many more women who go to prison have themselves been victims. They've often been abused, or in violent partnerships. And many more women have caring responsibilities than men do."

The land of milk and honey is Greater Manchester, where the various agencies - police, magistrates, women's centres, prisons, probation - work together to offer alternatives to custody, or to ensure that women do not return to prison. "Women [who] do terrible things", Mr Hughes says, "deserve to be locked up for a very long time. My concern is for those who are not a danger to society - who have become caught by a system which then does not help them out of it."

The scheme in Greater Manchester has significantly reduced reoffending, but prompts the bigger question: if it is working so well for women, why can't it be applied to male offenders, too, half of whom are at, or below, the level expected of an 11-year-old in reading. Victims?

The relationship between victimhood and behaviour is a subtle one, requiring a discernment that the law can never display. I have heard tragic stories from female prisoners. But all paedophiles have themselves been abused, and yet struggle to find kindness. We prefer some victims to others; but we can learn. So, let us to Greater Manchester, "to see this thing that has happened".

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