The Government is to shake up community sentences for women offenders in a bid to steer them away from jail.
Justice minister Helen Grant revealed plans for a new advisory board on female offenders, which will include looking at overhauling community sentences to offer a credible alternative to custody.
The move is part of a wider drive to tackle the unique struggles faced by female offenders and bring down the reoffending rate among women.
The Ministry of Justice said it costs £45,000 to keep a woman in prison for one year, while almost 45% of all women released from custody in 2010 reoffended within 12 months, committing more than 10,000 further offences.
Ms Grant said: “Many female offenders share the same depressingly familiar issues of abuse, drug and alcohol dependency and mental health problems.
“Women who commit crime should be punished, but we must not forget that a significant number have been victims during their lives, and need targeted support to break the cycle of offending.”
The department said up to 56% of women offenders have been in care and the proportion of female prisoners that report abuse in their lifetime is double that of males.
In addition, around 60% of women leave behind dependent children when entering prison.
The new advisory board will consider a range of issues, including use of community orders, backed by unpaid work and tagging, as well as locating female prisoners near to their families.
The approach comes as the Government moves ahead with its “rehabilitation revolution” proposals, which will see the majority of probation services contracted out to the private sector and charities.
Prison Reform Trust director Juliet Lyon broadly welcomed the Government’s stance but urged for legislation to be passed to provide for women in the criminal justice system.
She said: “History shows that, in the absence of specific legislation, commitments to address women’s different needs are often not realised, and momentum can be lost as ministers and officials come and go.”
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, welcomed the sentiments but criticised the statement for lacking detail.
He said: “It does, however, reflect the fact that community sentences are a far more appropriate way of dealing with the vast majority of women currently in prison, including all those who have committed non-violent crimes.”