An estimated 312,000 children annually lose a parent to imprisonment in England and Wales. Research on how the sentencing of mothers affects children has changed practice for judges, magistrates and Probation Officers, who now consider how children will be affected by their parents’ sentence.

Impacts

  • Dr Shona Minson's research led to changes in guidance from the National Probation Service on Pre-Sentence Reports. The March 2019 guidance states for the first time that probation officers must request an adjournment for a full Pre-Sentence Report in cases where the defendant has child dependants, to assess the impact on them and to ensure that plans are in place so children are cared for during imprisonment.
  • Dr Minson produced a short film (made in four versions for different audiences) outlining the court's duty to consider the impact of a mother's prison sentence on a dependent child. The video was launched in January 2018, and is now embedded in criminal justice training.
  • The Judicial College – responsible for all judicial training – hosts the film on their intranet, and the topic is now included in their sentencing seminars for Crown Court judges and recorders.
  • The film has become part of ongoing, tracked training for all National Probation Service court staff in England and Wales.
  • The films' content was referenced in the Government's Female Offender Strategy – a programme of work launched in 2018 to improve outcomes for female offenders.
  • Following Dr Minson's briefing paper and petition to the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, it launched an inquiry into the right to family life of children whose mothers are imprisoned. The Committee's final report will be published later this year.
  • Dr Minson's work provided key evidence for Lord Farmer's Review on the importance of family and other relational ties for women in the criminal justice system.

"The research papers and the film that Shona has provided have been enormously helpful to judges. She has demonstrated to us in very stark terms the real implications for children if their primary carer goes into custody." (HHJ Rosa Dean, Judge – Harrow Crown Court)

About the research

An estimated 312,000 children annually lose a parent to imprisonment in England and Wales, and 17,000 are separated from their mother who is often their primary carer. Research by Dr Shona Minson has shown that children with mothers in prison are negatively affected in terms of health, education and wellbeing.

In her PhD research Dr Minson, at the University of Oxford's Centre for Criminology, examined whether the impact on children is considered when a mother is sentenced in the criminal courts in England and Wales, and whether children's rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are upheld. Children with mothers in prison, and people who cared for children of imprisoned mothers, were interviewed about their experiences, and Crown Court judges were interviewed about their practice when sentencing mothers of dependent children.

Dr Minson found that children of women sentenced in the criminal courts are treated without the concern given to children separated from their parents in the family courts, where the child's wellbeing is the paramount consideration of the court. Judges and magistrates are inconsistent in how they consider dependent children, and do not understand how the children are affected when their primary carer is sentenced. Although guidance and mechanisms for considering the welfare of these children exist, they are not routinely used.

Funded by the University of Oxford's ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, Dr Minson worked with a range of partners – the Judicial College, the Magistrates Association, HM Prisons and Probation Service, the Criminal Bar Association, The Law Society, the Prison Reform Trust and Franks Films – to produce the film series Safeguarding Children when Sentencing Mothers. The four films, which share children's and carers' experiences and explains the court's duties towards the children, target different audiences: sentencing authorities, probation staff, solicitors and barristers, and mothers at risk of imprisonment.

"By ensuring that sentencing authorities consider the rights of children, they will no longer be invisible within maternal sentencing hearings," says Dr Minson. "There have been cases already where the judge was referred to the case law and the evidence presented in the films, and subsequently decided that the child's wellbeing meant an immediate custodial sentence for the mother was inappropriate, or should be for the shortest time possible."