Forget the hard-bitten stereotypes of Orange is the New Black, Bad Girls or Prisoner Cell Block H, the vast majority of the 4,000 women in prisons in England and Wales are non-violent and not a threat to public safety. Yet, women are actually more likely to be given to short custodial sentences than men. And despite the huge pressures on the criminal justice system, the number of women in prison has barely changed over recent years.
Adult women sentenced to immediate custody in 2017, by offence type
Source: MoJ, Safety in Custody statistics quarterly
For decades, campaigners have been calling for radical changes to the way in which the criminal justice system treats women, most notably in the 2007 Corston report which upended much of the conventional wisdom. But it has been over ten years since Corston, and not much has changed. The government’s own response to women offenders has today been published in the form of its female offenders strategy. Simultaneously, Crest are this month kick-starting a new project that seeks to find practical solutions to the inertia in women’s justice.
We want to explore what can be done to reduce the number of women offenders overall by looking at the drivers of offending and the way the criminal justice system responds to women offenders.
Women’s justice is a well-trodden path. We already know how many women in prison are suffering from mental health problems (65 per cent suffering from depression and 30 per cent having had a psychiatric admission prior to entering prison). Almost half (49 per cent) report needing help with a drug problem on entry to prison. Six in ten women in prison have dependent children. We also know women in prison are highly likely to be victims as well as offenders with over half (53 per cent) reporting experiencing emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child. And as the Prison Reform Trust and Women in Prison reported earlier this month, housing – or lack of it – is a significant factor in recidivism, with 60 per cent of women prisoners without homes to go to on release. Yet, most of the levers to affect change in any of these areas – and therefore impact on women offenders – sit outside the criminal justice system.
Crest believes that democratically accountable local leaders (notably elected mayors and PCCs) are the ones with the greatest opportunity to effect change and deliver practical solutions. They are the decision-makers who can both navigate local factors and take the complex needs of offenders into account. By agreeing and focusing on shared goals – for example, keeping parents with their children or preventing reoffending – there is a real opportunity to effect change by doing things differently.
In our Driving Justice Devolution report earlier this year, we set out our golden rules as well as specific areas where we believe PCCs could have a positive impact. In Avon and Somerset for example, there is a particularly high proportion of female (and male) offenders sentenced to very short custodial sentences for shoplifting. We therefore recommended that the PCC develop a local female offenders strategy and co-design and co-commission new diversion/triage services for women at risk of entering the criminal justice system.
In Devon and Cornwall, we found a co-designed and co-commissioned approach to ‘through the gate’ resettlement services would begin to address the large numbers of offenders with multiple/complex needs not currently receiving any form of intervention.
New resettlement services for women offenders in Northumbria would provide more flexible sentencing options for the relatively small number of female offenders who have increases in the numbers receiving short custodial sentences.
And negotiation of a devolved custody budget for North Yorkshire would enable local commissioning of prison places for the small number of female offenders as well as increasing the use of intensive community orders.
Devolution requires a significant change in approach. Local leaders need clear goals for what they want to achieve (for example targeting particular groups of offenders, such as women), and they need a clear picture of how criminal justice is operating across their area. We think they need to focus on the people in the system, rather than the structures they are operating in. They need robust governance to take on additional areas of responsibility. And of course, they need to secure local buy-in for change from other partners, notably local authorities.
Over the coming months, we’ll be developing a business case including the costed alternatives to custody. We will identify specific points for targeted investment along the local offender pathway, helping authorities use their resources more efficiently and effectively. Our focus is on women who commit low to medium level offences (up to 12 months in prison), which – as set out above – makes up the vast majority of those sentenced to custody. We are also clear that whilst we need to be tough on factors that cause women to offend, we cannot have multiple systems of justice. What we hope we will identify are swifter routes to justice, particularly for certain types of offence. We hope we can identify ways to improve collaboration and joint working between different agencies.
But there is still a long way to go. The government’s new national strategy for female offenders has been eagerly awaited, but expectations have been low that it will deliver what is needed. We will be studying its contents closely. The Corston recommendation for prison to be reserved for violent offenders who pose a risk to the public remains unmet (and the numbers being recalled have increased). And at a local level, many PCCs have no specific strategy for women offenders. The one thing that is clear, is that top-down solutions have, thus far, failed to deliver meaningful change for women offenders. Could devolution offer an end to this inertia? Is devolution the new black?
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Working in communications and public affairs for 15 years, Jo brings her expertise in the political and voluntary sector to deliver high-quality, politically sensitive campaigns and communications. From managing media and stakeholders in fast-paced General Election campaigns to advising senior politicians, in government and opposition, Jo understands how to improve communications in the public sector.