Criminal defence lawyer, Alan Burcombe looks at the recent Joint Committee report on the effect on a child when a parent is sent to prison and its recommendations for change.
A recent report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights highlighted the negative impact on children of a custodial sentence given when the offender is a parent. As a result, the committee called for a major overhaul of the way mothers and pregnant women are treated by the justice system.
What is the effect on a child when a parent is sent to prison?
Research has shown that children with a parent in prison are more likely to become offenders themselves and are twice as likely to experience mental health issues and are less likely to do well at school. In addition, they are more likely to develop drug and alcohol dependencies, earn less than their counterparts as adults and more likely to die before the age of 65.
According to the National Information Centre on Children of Offences (NICCO), annually over 300,000 children are affected by parental imprisonment across England and Wales. Furthermore, 10,000 visits are made by children to prisons each week. Most of these children will have a father in prison because a far greater number of men are incarcerated than women. However, it is believed that around 17,000 children are separated from their mothers each year, due to the mother receiving a custodial sentence. Of the mothers currently imprisoned in the UK, almost half are serving sentences of six months or less, and 82% are for non- violent offences.
The lack of hard physical data was also noted by the committee: ‘the lack of reliable quantitative data on the number of children whose mothers are in prison is unacceptable’.
Joint Committee recommendations
The Committee called for urgent change in four areas:
- Data collection
- Support for children
- Pregnancy and maternity
Among the recommendations is that a mother who is a child’s primary carer, should not be sent to prison in all but the most exceptional circumstances. Where a baby is born during the mother’s sentence, they should both be discharged from hospital directly to a Mother and Baby Unit (MBU). If a mother with a baby is sent to prison, the sentence should not start until a place is secured in an MBU.
The committee also said the judge should make every effort to understand the potential impact that a prison sentence will have. This should be taken into consideration when sentencing. The judge must have the welfare of the child, and its right to a family life, at the forefront of their mind.
In general, mothers are more likely to be a child’s primary carer. As a result, when a mother goes into prison their child is much more likely to be removed from the family home. According to the Prison Reform Trust, only 5% of children remain in their own homes when a mother is imprisoned.
The committee expressed the view that, despite the significant impact of imprisonment on children’s lives, the views and best interests of the children are rarely considered by the criminal justice system. Harriet Harman, who chaired the committee, said that at present the right of a child to family life is only given lip service and that ‘the harmful effects of a mother going to prison start at sentencing and continue for years, even after the mother is released’.
Legal representation is so important
Once again, the committee findings highlight the need for legal representation in court proceedings. Your legal representative will ensure that all the facts are properly presented. In this instance, the full family circumstances and the potential impact on the child of any custodial sentence. Included in that is the impact on the wider family. Your legal representative will ensure that the judge is fully aware of all the issues and circumstances. This allows the judge to make an informed decision that will these matters fully into account.
If you have been charged with, or are being investigated for, a criminal offence, make sure you seek legal representation at the earliest opportunity. At Wells Burcombe we offer both Criminal and Family Law specialist advice. So, contact our offices today on 01895 449288 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or fill in our contact form.