Menopausal female offenders could be spared jail under new sentencing guidelines for judges and magistrates.
The Sentencing Council, which advises the Government and courts, has set out new guidelines encouraging courts to consider more rehabilitative community sentences rather than sending people to jail for short terms.
The council said judges and magistrates should think more about sentences that are proven to reform offenders and think twice about jailing younger women because of the impact on children and older women because of the menopause.
It comes amid a prison overcrowding crisis and plans by the Government to create a legal presumption for courts against sending convicted offenders to serve sentences under one year.
Potential link between menopause and offending
The council is proposing to include guidance to magistrates and judges to consider the impact of the menopause on the behaviour of women typically aged between 45 and 55.
“While the council is aware that there is very little research on the link between menopause and offending, there is research and evidence on the link between menopause and mood changes, behaviour changes and the impact on mental health,” said the council.
“The council felt it would be of benefit to remind sentencers of the potential effects of menopause and perimenopause of women within a certain age range. The age range proposed to be included (typically aged 45 to 55) is in line with NHS guidance on menopause.”
Earlier this year an employment tribunal took account of a woman’s menopause symptoms in her claim of discrimination by her employers.
Maria Rooney, 52, claimed her anxiety and depression from the menopause meant she took extended periods of sick leave leading to her resignation.
And in March last year, 62-year-old Sue Williams scratched eight cars belonging to strangers in her hometown of Sevenoaks, Kent, causing at least £8,000 worth of damage.
Last month her lawyer told Medway Magistrates’ Court that Ms Williams had been menopausal at the time.
He said: “It’s not been identified as such, but something happened in her mind to damage the vehicles.
“They were all parked on the pavement and it restricts people walking on the pavement. They have to go in the road to go around the vehicle.”
Rehabilitation significant in reducing reoffending
In the major consultation, the council argues that if judges and magistrates conclude that an offender potentially deserves to be jailed, they must first pause and consider if a community order would actually be more effective at achieving rehabilitation – one of the key purposes of sentencing.
“Increasing academic research has covered the importance of rehabilitation in reducing reoffending,” said the council. “The council believes it is important to reflect the findings.”
The document suggested that judges needed to take extra care in assessing the lives of offenders from specific backgrounds including young adults, women, people with dependants, people who are transgender, ethnic minorities or people with addictions, learning disabilities or mental disorders.
Crucially, before judges jail a woman, the council said they must consider the harm that could be caused to a pregnant woman’s unborn child.
“A custodial sentence may become disproportionate to achieving the purposes of sentencing where there would be an impact on dependents, including on unborn children where the offender is pregnant,” said the council.
“Courts should avoid the possibility of an offender giving birth in prison unless the imposition of a custodial sentence is unavoidable.”
That highly significant guidance comes after the death in 2019 of a baby whose mother went into labour unaided in a cell. The latest figures show there had been 196 pregnant women in jail from January to April 2023, 44 of whom gave birth in custody.
Less offenders in prison for short sentences
A detailed technical assessment of the impact the proposals could have on prisons suggests that if the package goes ahead, the number of offenders serving short sentences, typically meaning a year or less, would fall.
“Regarding young adult and female offenders, the additional considerations highlighted for these groups are hoped to lead to even greater impacts for these groups,” it said.
Lord Justice Davis, Sentencing Council’s chairman, said the existing guidelines were among the most important in use.
“The revised guideline updates and extends the current guidance,” he said.
“It reflects new information and research in relation to young adult and female offenders and findings from research on the effectiveness of sentencing.”
Tom Franklin, head of the Magistrates Association, said it welcomed the “robust emphasis on alternatives to custody”.
“Magistrates want effective community sentences and more information about their impact on the people who are given them,” he said.
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