LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A U-turn by the British government on building new ‘community prisons’ for women has been praised by the English bishops as “very welcome.”

The government had pledged to build five of the facilities by 2020, in an effort to allow women prisoners to be closer to home, but on June 27 announced it would seek more non-custodial sentences for female offenders.

There are currently a little more than 3,800 women in prison in the nation, accounting for 4.7 percent of the prison population; women have consistently accounted for around 5 percent of the total prison population since 2007.

UK Justice Secretary David Gauke said the new strategy aims to ‘break the cycle’ of female offending.

“Many of the women serving custodial sentences are extremely vulnerable and have experienced abuse themselves,” Gauke said. “Evidence clearly shows that putting women into prison can do more harm than good for society, failing to cut the cycle of reoffending and often exacerbating already difficult family circumstances.”

Bishop Richard Moth, who heads the prison outreach for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said the policy change is a “move toward more effective rehabilitation for women.”

“Evidence shows that short custodial sentences are detrimental to women and their families, and a greater focus on innovative community provision is a very welcome commitment,” Moth said.

Instead of custodial prisons, the new strategy will work with NGOs in establishing ‘residential women’s centers,’ which will support female offenders to find employment; find secure, stable accommodation; and help them to avoid re-offending.

The statistics released by the Ministry of Justice are sobering: An estimated 24-31 percent of female offenders have dependent children, and a higher proportion of women in custody are living with their dependent children prior to imprisonment than imprisoned fathers (60 percent vs. 45 percent); over 60 percent of female offenders have experienced domestic violence; female prisoners are more than twice as likely as male prisoners to report needing help for mental health problems, 49 percent versus 18 percent respectively; and the latest statistics show the recidivism rate for women in custodial sentences of less than a year is a staggering 71 percent.

“While public protection will always be our priority, and prison must remain the only option in the most serious cases, I want that to be a last resort,” Gauke said.

“I want this strategy to be the start of a shift in attitudes to the way we support female offenders with greater emphasis on community provision. This ultimately benefits everyone – offenders, their families and the wider community as we see fewer victims and cut the cost of reoffending,” the government minister added.

While praising the government’s change of policy towards female prisoners, Moth said the changes should apply to both men and women.

“Despite the evidence that community sentences are more effective at reducing reoffending than time in prison, their use has declined steadily over the last decade,” the bishop said.

“Reducing the use of short term custodial sentences across the board would give offenders a better chance of rehabilitation, protect vulnerable individuals from exposure to potentially harmful environments, and reduce unnecessary pressure on an already overstrained prison service,” Moth continued.

He noted that Scotland – which has devolved powers on prisons – has already introduced a presumption against custodial sentences under three months and will shortly be extending this to twelve months.

“It is time for our Government to examine this approach in greater detail and to consider whether there are lessons that could be applied in England and Wales,” the bishop said.