Who cares about women offenders?
There is very mixed evidence about whether the government cares about women offenders. Ministers talk about women offenders a lot. The new private providers delivering the 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies had to spell out exactly how they would meet the needs of women offenders in their Transforming Rehabilitation bids. At the same time, however, the ring fence for funding services for women offenders has been removed and there are concerns that the overall cut in probation budgets will impact disproportionately on the relatively small proportion (5% prisoners, 15% probationers) of female offenders.
Many contributors in the current “If I would Justice Secretary…” series have highlighted concerns about women offenders.
The recent (24 March 2015) House of Commons Justice Committee report: “Women offenders: follow up” seeks to examine the government’s commitment in this area.
The report recaps its initial enquiry into female offenders when it found large gaps in service provision and that liaison and diversion schemes, intended to divert women into suitable mental health care or treatment programmes, had not developed sufficiently.
The Justice Committee is pleased that the government has subsequently piloted a trial of these schemes with the commitment that, if they are successful, they will be rolled out nationally.
However, the Committee makes clear its concern that there is no dedicated funding stream for these services and questions whether they will happen in practice.
Similarly, the Committee applauds the government for requiring the new probation providers to deliver specific services for women offenders but questions whether this requirement alone is sufficient to make it happen.
The Committee reserves its biggest criticism for the government’s refusal to reconfigure the female custodial estate. The Committee had advocated that there should be small custodial units designed to encourage women offenders to take greater responsibility for their lives. Instead, the government has started to develop strategic hubs around large population centres to serve local courts and facilitate resettlement planning.
This is a short and slightly disappointing report which seems intended merely to place a marker for the next government. Little substantive work has taken place since the Justice Committee’s initial enquiry into women offenders in March 2013. As a consequence, the report is reduced to expressing the hope that sufficient funding will be found to take forward what is, more or less, a cross-party consensus on the need to reduce the number of women prisoners and develop a dedicated women-focused service which targets much of its efforts on diverting women offenders from the criminal justice system.
We will need to wait to see whether the next government backs these plans with any real funding.