UK MPs tell judges to ask about children before sentencing

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A cross-party committee of MPs and peers in the UK has voiced concern that judges may lack information needed to hand out appropriate sentences, consequently harming children of mothers sent to prison.

Children’s right to respect for family life should be a central concern when a judge is considering sending a primary carer, which usually is a mother, to prison, the Parliament’s joint committee on human rights said in The Right to Family Life: children whose mothers are in prison report, which was published Monday. That is frequently not the case, it said.

The committee’s report said that about 17,000 children are separated from their mothers each year when those mothers are sent to prison. The vast majority of those mothers are jailed for non-violent offences, the committee said.

The committee also pointed out that children whose mothers are imprisoned are more likely to have future problems, including increased likelihood of criminal offending, mental health problems, and drug and alcohol addiction. These children are also likely to stop education at a younger age, earn less as adults, and die before reaching the age of 65.

“The right of a child to family life is only given lip service when their mothers are sent to prison,” said Harriet Harman, chair of the joint committee. “The harmful effects of a mother going to prison start at sentencing and continue for years, even after the mother is released.”

The report recommends that judges must “make reasonable inquiries to establish whether the offender is the primary carer of a child, and if the offender is a primary carer, the judge must not sentence unless a pre-sentence report is available at the sentencing hearing, unless the circumstances are exceptional.”

It also said that judges must have adequate information about the likely consequences of separation of the child from the primary carer, including hearing from the child if needed. The committee said that the impact of sentencing on children must be a distinct consideration given full weight by the courts. The duty, which reflects existing case law, should be given statutory force, it said.

“Judges can’t respect the human right of a child to family life if they don’t know the child exists. At the moment there is no guarantee that they have this information; there must be proper checks before sentencing,” Harman said.