Jo Coles | Sophie du Mont
Wednesday 3 June 2019
For more than a decade politicians have agreed on the need to improve outcomes for vulnerable women in the criminal justice system. However, this consensus has not lead to the policy change required to help women offenders. Too many remain caught up in a system which fails to identify their needs or circumstances and so fails to punish or to rehabilitate them effectively.
With widespread agreement that reform is long overdue, this project has sought to identify the practical steps that will help to end the cycle of re-offending by women offenders. Working with Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), prisons, probation and health services, the police, and charities in Avon and Somerset and the West Midlands, we have developed blueprints for how these agencies can remove barriers to change and advance their own strategies for women offenders.
The policy recommendations we set out provide evidence that change is possible.
Our work has focused on understanding why women are offending, which factors affect their engagement with services, what support is available to meet their needs and what would have the greatest impact on outcomes for them. We have concluded that political will and consensus around the problems/solutions are not enough to drive change. Instead, the following issues must be addressed:
Centralisation: in such a centralised system, how do you design flexible, place-based services to address the specific and complex needs of a small percentage of the overall offender population?
Fragmentation: a siloed justice system prevents a whole system approach; e.g. the move to on the day (fast delivery) pre-sentence reports processes cases quickly but prevents a proper assessment of the complex needs of women offenders
Criminal-justice centric: the criminal justice system cannot on its own tackle the wider social needs which drive offending. Mainstream services in local government, the NHS and the voluntary sector are vital to
We have identified a number of concrete, practical steps for PCCs, mayors, justice agencies and policy makers that can and should be taken to develop a more joined up, preventative approach:
Know your local system: have a clear picture of local drivers of offending and services available to provide support. Mapping women’s pathways through the justice system and the current state of local provision is a first step to understanding who is in the system and identifying the pressure points and anomalies within it.
Have a local strategy: what works in Devon won’t necessarily work in Derbyshire and a strategy for women offenders needs to be rooted in the specific circumstances of an area. Building a strategy around the specifics and circumstances of a locality binds stakeholders towards a common set of goals and priorities
Take a whole system approach: if the goal is effective local alternatives to a formal criminal justice pathway, what is the best way to deliver this in your area? This might be through investment in new and existing women’s centres, or co-locating services (e.g. with children’s services or probation) or via an outreach model with women visited at home by key workers.
Finally the fiscal context cannot be ignored. The £4.5 million funding from the Female Offender Strategy is woefully short of what is required to meet demand. Locally it is vital to build a strong financial case for change to pool existing resources around shared objectives, if no further resources are forthcoming.
1. Pilot diversion pathways in courts to identify women in need of intervention
2. Explore the feasibility for a new requirement for courts to attach financial planning support as a condition of sentences, including fines
3. Set up retail-based diversionary schemes for women committing shoplifting offences
4. Develop a better understanding of women entering the criminal justice system via non-policing routes (e.g. prosecution by TV licensing)
5. Every area to develop vulnerable women’s strategy involving criminal justice and other agencies
6. Trial new out of court disposals and diversion schemes tailored to address the causes of offending
7. Commission analysis on where local women are in prison to understand how it will be impacting on family life etc.
8. Ensure pre-sentence reports provide information about women’s needs and offending circumstances
9. Devolve custody budgets for women to PCCs and mayors to increase investment in community provision
10. Develop alternatives to short custodial sentences such as Intensive Community Orders and greater use of electronic tagging
11. PCCs and mayors to comprehensively review current local provision to ensure they have a full picture of gender-specific provision at all points in the offender journey to be able to fill gaps and commit to 100% coverage across police force areas
12. Develop gender-informed probation services which stress the importance of support to women offenders
Crest can help with many of the steps above, as demonstrated in our blueprint development for Avon and Somerset and the West Midlands. Get in touch to find out more.