Jenny Earle is the Programme Director, Reducing Women’s Imprisonment, for the Prison Reform Trust. She is the third contributor in a new guest blog series setting out the top three priorities for the new Justice Secretary. You can follow @PRTUK on Twitter.
If I were Justice Secretary
If I became Justice Secretary in May 2015 my top three priorities would be to reduce women’s imprisonment, establish a women’s justice board, and implement a strategy to improve employment outcomes for women with a criminal conviction.
The UK has one of the largest prison populations in Western Europe and it comes at a significant economic and social cost – not least the high rates of reoffending. This is particularly true for women – with HMP Holloway and HMP Bronzefield being the largest women’s prisons in the EU. Most women are sent to prison for minor non-violent offences (a third of women’s custodial sentences are for shoplifting), for very short periods.
Solutions lie outside prison
We know that most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside prison walls in access to mental health and drug and alcohol treatment services, protection from domestic violence and coercive relationships, jobs and childcare support. In an age of austerity it makes sense to invest in cost effective criminal justice responses and penalties. A six week stay in prison is £4,500, nearly twice the cost of a year’s community order and three times the cost of engaging with a women’s centre. The public favours community solutions to low level offending.
New women’s justice board
I would start by setting up a national women’s justice board or commission. This is long overdue, having been recommended by numerous reviews, most recently Transforming Lives. The number of women in prison doubled between 1995 and 2010, and their profile – including their needs and the drivers to their offending – is strikingly different from men’s. The devastating impacts of incarceration are manifest not only in the high levels of mental illness and self-harm among women but also in the intergenerational effects on their children. Employment outcomes for women following short prison sentences are 3 times worse than for men, and many are trapped in coercive relationships.
Political consensus but no political resolve
There is now political consensus on the need for a distinct approach to women offenders, but so far successive governments have lacked the resolve to implement the infrastructure necessary to achieve systemic change. The groundwork has been laid by the ministerial Advisory Board on Female Offenders, by the Youth Justice Board that has seen a 60% reduction in youth custody, and a new lever in section 10 of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 requiring probation services to address the needs of women offenders. A good start has been made in reducing women’s imprisonment with local ‘women’s pathfinders’ that involve joined-up working between police, courts and women’s services to divert women out of trouble. But history tells us that progress will falter and flag without the right leadership and a clear governance structure.
I will make up for lost time. In my first 100 days as Justice Secretary I will appoint a criminal justice champion for women with a brief to set up a small high-level cross-government strategic authority with a 5 year plan to deliver improved outcomes for women, families and communities.
The purpose of this blog series is to stimulate a debate about where our criminal justice system should be heading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the justice priorities should be.