By Amelia Hill, Social Affairs Correspondent, The Observer
The female prison population is expected to fall by at least 10% in the next two years, according to a leaked government email.
At least 3,000 fewer women will spend time behind bars in 2011 due to an increase in funding for alternative punishments for female offenders who are not a danger to the public, and a drive to find ways of helping those women at risk of offending.
The reduction in numbers of female prisoners will, the government hopes, be achieved through the £15.6m funding, mainly for the development of services at women's centres and other specialist provision for women in the community, and further developing bail support services for women.
"The overarching goal of the [two-year spending] programme is to significantly reduce the number of women in custody," said the email from the Criminal Justice Women's Strategy Unit of the Ministry of Justice. "We aim to reduce the prison population by between 350 and 400 places (around 3,000 women a year) by 2011. This equates to ... a target of 10% of women who might otherwise have been remanded or sentenced to custody."
The aim was welcomed by Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform. "It is very positive that the government has put a figure on the number of women they want to keep out of prison, but I think the number is conservative."
She believes that it would be possible to "reduce the women prison population to zero. The tiny number of women who have committed violent crimes and are a danger to society could be placed in small residential units, while the overwhelming number who are incarcerated for non-violent, petty crimes could pay their debt to society while on community sentences, during which they would also be helped to beat the issues that led to their offending behaviour in the first place, such as drug or alcohol addiction, housing, employment or relationship issues."
In the last decade the number of female prisoners has risen by 60%: there were an average of 4,458 women in prison last year.
There is considerable evidence showing that women sent to prison are especially vulnerable: one in four women who go to jail has been in local authority care as a child; half have been abused and almost 40% say they have attempted suicide.
Almost 70% of women are in prison for non-violent offences, compared with fewer than half of men.