Harman and her colleagues from the House of Commons and House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights are calling for a complete overhaul of the way mothers and pregnant women are treated by the justice system.
Their inquiry recommends preventing mother from being jailed if they are a child’s primary carer – in all but exceptional circumstances – and for it to become a judge’s duty to understand the impact of sentencing on the child.
Currently, no reliable data exists recording the number of children with imprisoned mothers, pregnant inmates or inmates who have given birth behind bars.
It is believed around 17,000 children are growing up with jailed mothers, and are often “invisible” during the trial.
Research consistently shows children with a parent in prison are more likely to become offenders themselves, suffer mental health problems, finish school early and develop drug or alcohol issues – and these are worse for children with incarcerated mothers than fathers.
One woman, who was fifteen when her mother was sentenced, told the inquiry: “The thing I always think about, and I think back to it quite a lot, I know my mum did wrong and deserved a punishment, but if you were to stand my mum up in that box with me and my brother, and someone turned around and said: ‘do you sentence these three?’, would the judge look at it differently?”
As of February 1, 2019, there were 3,797 women in prison in England and Wales. Eighty-two per cent had committed non-violent offences. Worryingly, the number serving sentences of six months and under has sharply risen – and now accounts for over half those given in 2018.
The committee’s new report recommends extra support for these children; including financial help for kinship carers, and for all pregnant inmates to be discharged to a mother and baby unit to give birth.
The inquiry heard of cases including a woman who lost her baby while handcuffed in an ambulance. She had been serving a six month sentence for tampering with her electricity meter.