This Tuesday (13 September 2019), the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System and The Howard League published the first report of the APPG’s inquiry into women offenders.
Entitled “Arresting the entry of women into the criminal justice system”, the report concluded that:
Police are arresting vulnerable women for trivial offences in the misguided belief that it well help them to get the support they need from other services.
The Home Office publishes annual data on arrests (Home Office, 2018). In the year ending 31 March 2018 there were 698,737 arrests by police in England and Wales. Women and girls account for a minority of all arrests (15 per cent).
This indicates a disproportionality as women are only five per cent of the prison population, who tend to be people involved in more serious offending.
There were 102,919 arrests of women and girls for notifiable offences in 2017-2018, of which 92,578 were women aged 18 or over. Home Office data show that over half of arrests of women were for non-violent offences. There were over 24,000 arrests of women for theft offences and over 7,000 arrests for public order offences in the year ending 31 March 2018.
The APPG began its inquiry in May this year to investigate what can be done to reduce the number of arrests and prevent women being drawing into the criminal justice system. The inquiry is holding oral evidence sessions with expert witnesses and looking at examples of good practice.
Over-representation of vulnerable women
Some but not all of the women who come into contact with the police are vulnerable. The Corston Report (2007) found that women with histories of being victims of violence and abuse are over-represented in the criminal justice
system and can be described as victims as well as offenders. The government’s Female Offender Strategy (MoJ, 2018) recognised this, stating:
“Coming into contact with the criminal justice system, and in particular custody, can undermine the ability of women to address the issues that have caused their offending. In particular, many have difficulty maintaining employment and accommodation whilst in the CJS.”
Women who are vulnerable need a safe space, not a spell in a police cell which can be a threatening place for women who may be victims of domestic abuse. Police officers have the discretion not to arrest and can respond in other ways, for example making sure a woman is able to go to a safe place.
The Howard League heard evidence from a senior police officer that he was training his officers to attend more carefully to women who were victims of domestic violence incidents. Too many were arrested for assaulting police after the women reacted badly in stressful and frightening situations. The women were victims, yet ended up being arrested.
The APPG’s report states: “Vulnerable women who require support from other services should not be arrested and it is misguided of the police to think that arrest is a route to help – it is not.”
An arrest can have far-reaching consequences for women and their families. Once a woman has been arrested, her details are entered on the police national computer and retained until she reaches her 100th birthday. This information may be disclosed in criminal records checks.
Most women who are arrested do not need to be caught in the criminal justice net. A senior police officer told the inquiry that the system ‘punished people who were exhibiting non-typical behaviour’.
The officer gave an example of a young woman with learning difficulties who repeatedly encountered the police due to her problematic behaviour on public transport as she travelled to a placement. The police did not arrest the woman but instead contacted the placement provider, who agreed to arrange transport so that she no longer had to take the bus on her own.
Making fewer arrests would lead to fewer women being prosecuted, sentenced and imprisoned. In 2018, a 10-month inquiry by the APPG into the sentencing of women found that many women were being sent to prison unnecessarily – in spite of overwhelming evidence that prison made matters worse for them.
The header image is the copyright of Paul Box/reportdigital.co.uk