The short-term imprisonment of mothers is unjust, DMU research finds

Mothers should be spared the ‘beyond painful’ ordeal of being separated from their children when they are given prison sentences for minor offences, according to new De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) research.

This is the finding of recently published research from academics Lucy Baldwin and Rona Epstein, which examines the harsh impact of short custodial sentences on mothers and their children.

Women in Prison WEB

DMU Senior Lecturer Lucy Baldwin, pictured at the launch of the WFCJ Research Network

Lucy, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, has highlighted the knock-on effects of imprisoning women and the ‘upheaval and havoc’ it causes in the lives of their families.

She is now calling for ‘justice to motherhood’ with a UK-wide reduction in the imprisonment of mothers.

The research adds weight to Lucy’s Doctoral research and stresses the urgency for sentencing reform, which should, she argues, favour community sentences to allow women to tackle the causes of offending whilst maintaining responsibility and care for their children. 

It comes as DMU has teamed up with the University of Leicester to launch a Women, Family, Crime and Justice (WFCJ) Research Network. Its primary objective is to support those with a professional or personal interest in women and families affected by criminal and social justice.

Lucy said: “Short custodial sentences for mothers completely destroy families. The imprisonment of mothers and the effects on children is unnecessary and unjust.

“Women are unfortunately being sentenced for a ridiculous period of time for relatively minor offences, many of which are related to poverty – and that has to stop.

“The justice system has to be mindful of children and the impact imprisonment has on them.”

A total of 17 women, who were mothers to 50 children, were interviewed as part of the research. They were serving sentences of between two weeks and 34 weeks, all for non-violent offences.

The study highlighted the long-term impact of prison on maternal emotion, which affected family stability and children’s well-being. The negative impact of separation on children included bed-wetting, insecurities, challenging behaviour, difficulty in sleeping and loss of education.

Almost all the mothers in the study described being separated from their children, some for the first time, as ‘traumatic’, ‘painful’ and ‘heart-breaking.’

The study found that children were left with partners, grandparents and sometimes in foster care. Some mothers did not receive any visits from their children or very few visits, often because the travelling costs and long distances were prohibitive.


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Lucy, who previously worked as a social worker and probation officer, carried out the research with Rona, Honorary Research Assistant at Coventry University. Lucy has previously had a book published called Mothering Justice, which explores the complexities of motherhood in criminal and justice settings.

The research is titled Short but not sweet: A study of the impact of short custodial sentences on mothers and their children.’

Lucy said: “These mothers spoke openly and honestly about the devastating effects on their families. The experience of prison was beyond painful for them.

“We found that children were not taken into account during sentencing, or who would care for them.

“Then there were several lasting consequences. Mothers didn’t see their children and they lost that closeness; that bond can be lost forever.”

At a time when the number of women being sent to prison is on the rise, the research concludes by making 10 recommendations for a reformed sentencing policy.

This includes non-custodial options in all but the most serious of offences, courts taking into account primary caring responsibilities, and delays of up to seven days where custodial sentences are inevitable to allow families to emotionally and physically prepare for separation.

Women in Prison launch WEB

The launch of the Women, Family, Crime and Justice Research Network at DMU

Academics, policy-makers, service users and family members were among the 50 people who attended the Research Network’s launch on April 19. They listened to a series of guest speakers, including the first time a Muslim mother, wearing the full-face veil, had spoken in public about life after prison as part of the Muslim Women in Prison Project.

Lucy said: “The launch went very well and was very positively commented on. We are bringing together practitioners, researchers and service users to have a joint voice.”

The Research Network is planning to have its own website and to host quarterly research seminars from August. Each seminar will be free-of-charge and will include three guest speakers sharing insights about related issues.

For more information on the WFCJ Research Network and its future seminars, email

Posted on Tuesday 8th May 2018

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