More female criminals will be spared jail under a new strategy to be unveiled by the government.
The Justice Secretary has given his strongest hint yet that an increased number of women will be given non-custodial sentences if convicted of non-violent crimes.
In a wide-ranging interview for Sophy Ridge on Sunday, David Gauke also blasted middle-class drug users for propping up the illegal trade.
The government’s delayed strategy on female offenders, due to be published last year, will be released “very shortly”, says Mr Gauke.
He said: “I think we do have to be conscious that sometimes there are different issues with women offenders than there are with men. A lot of female offenders, for example, are themselves victims of crime, quite a high proportion are victims of domestic abuse themselves… a lot of them are non-violent, a lot of them [have] complex mental health issues we need to address.
“I think there is a very good point in saying that of the 4,000 or so female offenders who are in custody, how many of them can be dealt with through other means? Non-custodial sentences are certainly something to look at, more support in the community rather than within prisons is something we have to look at. There will of course still be women who need to be in prison, serious offenders, but I think there is scope to look at that number and I think that number could come down.”
More than 80% of women are in prison for non-violent offences and nearly two-thirds are jailed for six months or less. Short sentences are criticised for being long enough to lose housing or custody of children but being too short to provide an opportunity for rehabilitation.
Mr Gauke went on to criticise middle-class drug users who “have to recognise that they are fuelling the industry that is resulting in the knife crimes, that is resulting in the difficulties we have in prison”.
He said: “The violent crime we see inside and outside prison is strongly linked to the drugs trade…There is a responsibility for middle-class people who take cocaine at a dinner party, that when they see a story of a 15-year-old being stabbed in Hackney, they should feel a degree of guilt and responsibility.”
The Justice Secretary acknowledged the explosion in use of psychoactive substances such as “spice” in prisons.
“There has always been an issue with drugs in prisons but it has deteriorated because of these new substances. To give you an example of how it might be smuggled in, what you would get is something that purports to be a solicitor’s letter – which benefits from legal privilege and so on – it’s actually not, it’s soaked in ‘spice’, and then it comes in and is smoked.
“So there are challenges in terms of preventing that coming in, but there are things we can do. We are training more sniffer dogs, we’re looking at what we can do with scanners in prisons where this is a particular issue, we’re training staff further on this, we’re making sure there is more intelligence at a central level that can pick these things up, we’re increasing the ability of downloading information from mobile phones which are smuggled in.”
:: The full interview with Justice Secretary David Gauke will be aired on Sophy Ridge on Sunday at 10am today