Published 26 June 2019
A year ago, the Government’s Female Offenders’ Strategy called for a gender-responsive, partnership-focused, evidence-based ‘whole system’ approach for women offenders. According to the strategy, solutions must be driven locally; focused on diverting women from offending behaviour and developing measures to address their complex needs.
In our report, Ending the Inertia for Women Offenders, we sought to find out why, despite widespread consensus about the change needed to improve outcomes, practical change has been so hard to deliver. Here are our five lessons for mayors and PCCs on how to end the inertia and improve outcomes for women offenders:
1. Use unique local knowledge and powers
PCCs and mayors, armed with local knowledge and convening powers, are uniquely well-placed to lead the development of local vulnerable women’s strategies. Such strategies should be focusing on women within, and outside, the justice system and should address the drivers of vulnerability in a gender-informed way. During our research, women in and around the justice system and those working with them, frequently highlighted long-standing problems which had been allowed to escalate, to the point that women ended up in the justice system rather than being addressed at an early stage:
“If you were to look at my medical history, I’d been going to my doctors for years. I’d been saying I need help. I was sad. I knew I wasn’t dealing with emotions properly. But I just didn’t know what help it was I needed.”
Women’s centre service user
Vulnerable women’s strategies should incorporate mechanisms to ensure that at each stage of the criminal justice process, there are opportunities to identify and address underlying vulnerabilities to break what can be a cycle of reoffending.
2. Identify how women are entering the criminal justice system
Women continue to follow very different criminal justice journeys compared to men. Nationally, only 44% of women come into contact with the criminal justice system via the police, compared to 77% of men. This is because a higher proportion of women are prosecuted via summons rather than arrest (e.g. prosecution by TV licensing enforcement). Paradoxically, then those women that could be diverted as they enter the system through police liaison and diversion schemes do not get the ‘opportunity’ to do so. This must change.
3. Develop new pathways and approaches for certain offences (e.g. theft)
Around two fifths of penalty notice disorders given to women offenders nationally in 2017 were for low-value theft offences – in the West Midlands, the proportion was more than a half. There is therefore real scope to develop local retail-based diversionary schemes, working in partnership with businesses and women’s centres for women committing shoplifting offences. Debt counselling and financial planning could also be piloted as a condition attached to instances of repeated fines for theft offences.
“Fines can be a missed opportunity… Many women have no money but [their offending has] often gone too far for a conditional discharge, so you just keep piling up fines on them.”
4. Use pre-sentence reports to identify underlying vulnerabilities
Help sentencers make appropriate sentencing decisions by ensuring they have the information they need about those in front of them. Under pressure to drive efficiency in the courts, there has been increased pressure to deliver pre-sentence reports more quickly. In 2017, 96% of pre-sentence reports (PSRs) prepared were same-day ‘Fast Delivery PSRs’ compared to 68% in 2012. Crown Court statistics show that women are half as likely to receive a standard, more detailed PSR, than men. PCCs and mayors need to work with probation services, courts and prosecuting bodies to ensure PSRs provide thorough information about women’s needs and offending circumstances without undue pressure on court time.
“The type of report that magistrates receive should be looked at too – when there are complex issues in somebody’s background, it may be that we need a full PSR rather than an oral report on the day.”
5. Develop a financial case for change
In addition to the human costs of failure of the current system for women and their children, there is a compelling need to work out the financial benefits of a more joined up, preventative approach to women’s offending. The Government has invited areas to set out the local case for change, including demonstrating how custody costs could be better used to increase investment in community provision. In the absence of an agreed methodology to date, Crest has developed a methodology for local areas to start to estimate the costs of women’s offending.
Criminal justice remains a heavily centralised, siloed and crime-centred system. The partnership-based, whole system approach that everyone seems to agree is the way to improve outcomes for women is therefore almost impossible to deliver. With so many of the levers to deliver improved outcomes for women offenders lying outside criminal justice; health partners, local government, housing and the voluntary sector must all recognise they have key roles to play.
It is PCCs and Mayors who have the levers in their hands to draw together relevant local partners from within and outside the criminal justice system to develop regional strategies that will create a local system for women that is more responsive to their needs and vulnerabilities.
The opportunity is clear. In 2017, 48 per cent of immediate custodial sentences given to women were due to theft offences, and of the roughly 3,800 women in prison across England and Wales, around three quarters were serving a sentence of less than six months for overwhelmingly non-violent offences. As we set out in our report, in the West Midlands, 215 women were sentenced to custody for 3 months or less for theft for shoplifting in 2017, costing £1.3 million. The cost of sending 66 women from Avon and Somerset to custody for 6 months or less as a result of theft offences in 2017 amounted to £400,000.
If you would like to do more to support women offenders in your area, we can help.