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The Greater Manchester Problem Solving Court
The Greater Manchester Problem Solving Courts provides a holistic approach to women on court orders.

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A whole system approach

This is a guest post by Fiona Deacon, Strategic lead for women for Greater Manchester, delivering a whole system approach for women on Probation.

The Problem Solving Court (PSC) approach in Greater Manchester is a process in which the woman, the courts, probation services and women’s centres work together to support the woman to adhere to her court order and to achieve positive outcomes for herself. As part of the order, the woman attends reviews with a dedicated bench of magistrates, to set small achievable goals and discuss progress against these and how they are doing in life generally. The PSC approach to sentencing originated as an alternative to custody model for women in Manchester and Salford in 2014. It has evolved further and now reaches all the magistrates and crown courts in Greater Manchester.  The criteria has been broadened to include women at risk of receiving a medium to high level community order, or custodial sentence, to acknowledge the multiple disadvantages and unmet needs that women in the criminal justice system present with.

The development process

In 2014, Greater Manchester had a very inspiring model for young adult men, who as part of their order, were required to attend multiple appointments at one location and return to court for progress reviews. I was looking for a similar model for women, who seemed to face so many disadvantages within the criminal justice system. Through the Rhodes Foundation, I visited several projects around New York that all had a PSC approach embedded, whether as a bail condition or a deferred sentence. Whilst women were residing at the project or attending there, they were frequently returning to court to evidence the progress they were making. The women I met all valued the relationship they had with the sentencers and the praise they received to continue to push through and make positive changes.

On my return, I gained feedback directly from women in Manchester about the support  they felt they needed to avoid further offending patterns, and brought this into the PSC approach design. I was looking for a solution that would meet women’s needs whilst also ensuring the order of the court was carried out. I wanted to enable women to attend appointments in a safe space, to address underlying factors linked to offending, break barriers to accessing services and do this whilst in some cases also looking after their children, managing addictions, emotional wellbeing, experience of trauma and isolation, and overall, support women to address their needs at their pace and according to their priorities. I recognised the wider community gain in resolving issues at the root cause and the need for a whole system approach to do this.

Critical success factors

Court space and time from the HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) are the most important resources needed for this project.  Equally are women’s centres, which provide a non-statutory trauma-informed location for women to meet and talk. We were already collaborating with some women’s centres before the PSC was set up, and they supported me to host a multi-agency meeting with our partner agencies.  These centres and our partners have continued to evolve with us over the nine years we have been operating, and now host remote dial-ins to the courts on a weekly basis, making up part of the package of a whole system approach to support.

Engagement of sentencers

Resourcing the PSC is always a challenge, particularly post-pandemic, where the belief in the PSC remained, but there were many pressures from HMCTS in particular, whose priority was to work through the backlog of convictions, and rightly so, victims deserve swift justice. We had to negotiate with them to give us a court room and a legal adviser to facilitate the reviews, which they did. It is also challenging to justify the resources when we have attendance issues. However, we have come a long way in the last 12 months to return to a fully operating model again. Despite the resource requirements, the magistrates, legal advisors and court managers are also completely committed and share the same passion to adapt sentencing approaches. It has been great to co-deliver training with the more experienced magistrates, who are very passionate about this aspect of their role and share this with the large group of sentencers across Greater Manchester.

We often read about women receiving harsher sentences and being ‘doubly deviant’, meaning that women are viewed more harshly for deviating from both expected social norms and gender norms, however the commitment of sentencers to try something new has been a surprising part of this project. While there are still decisions that can feel uncomfortable, – and equally women who reoffend after attempts to try something new, the belief in the approach, and credibility of our data to support the impact has gained confidence across Greater Manchester’s sentencers. This was shown by our achievement in rolling it out to the crown court, where we saw an influx of PSC order approaches for women who were often on remand.

Recently, there has been a need to address individual concerns about the overall approach from a trauma informed viewpoint, which is understandable, as many elements of the criminal justice system are traumatic, and this experience cannot always be mitigated. But we strive to adapt and be aware of how women, men and young adults feel, through various parts of the system.

Overall, we feel we are working from within a system, pushing out. Our belief is that many of the issues women are facing are social, rather than criminal problems. Perhaps there wouldn’t be so much need for the PSC, if there was more early intervention, easier access to support and housing and different sentencing guidelines. Until that is the case, we will remain on the inside of the Criminal Justice System fighting out.

Evaluation

A cost benefit analysis predicted that for every £1 invested, £17.60 would be saved by the NHS, children services and all our partner agencies. We also collate feedback from women, by measuring their own feelings of progress and through discussions during their supervision period.  Sentencing trends show that there has been a reduction in not just short custodial sentences, but re-offending rates overall. Greater Manchester has the lowest re-offending rates for women in England and Wales.

In the future, a formal evaluation would help support us post pandemic recovery to analyse the new model further and understand how effective women find it.  The area I want to explore more personally is intergenerational offending. I recall conversations with many young adults whose mums were in the criminal justice system. Having now supported many of these mums, I would like to know what difference it has made to their children’s lives.

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