Where next for services for women offenders?
This post is a summary of an important, if profoundly worrying report on what’s happening to services for women offenders which was published by Clinks on 22 September 2014. The report is the culmination of a project which tracked the experiences of nine organisations that directly support women in the CJS, providing a snapshot of a rapidly changing national picture.
The report is set in a rapidly changing policy context. In addition to all the changes being implemented by Transforming Rehabilitation, the government also set out its response to the Justice Committee’s Female Offenders report. These policy changes have thrown up a number of concerns for organisations working with women offenders:
- The uniqueness of women’s projects may get lost in the wider TR picture, which of course is driven by the need to reduce public spending
- The change in commissioning arrangements had led to competitiveness between providers
- Some organisations were offering to provide a cut-price, generic service for women offenders
However, by far the biggest concern was financial uncertainty. Although the TR contract specification insists on dedicated services for women offenders, funding is no longer ring-fenced. Most projects are funded on a three year basis and many did not know what would happen when their contract expired. The fact that probation trusts would no longer be commissioning their services meant that partnership arrangements, often developed over many years, were no longer relevant.
The changing needs of service users
The women’s organisations reported to Clinks that their service users had been profoundly affected by the economic downturn with a substantial increase in demand for housing and employment support and, in particular, for help with finance, benefit and debt problems. Agencies reported that women frequently just did not have enough money for basics such as tampons or even food, often as a result of benefit cuts.
Finding a positive way forwards
One of the best aspects of this important Clinks report is that it does not merely report the difficulties faced by organisations working with women offenders but highlights innovative practice and makes recommendations for ensuring that the needs of women offenders are not neglected under TR.
Innovative practice includes satellite provision in rural areas enabling courts to increase non-custodial sentencing, the provision of formal contact points for food banks, and the use of new technologies to support geographically isolated individuals.
The report concludes with five recommendations:
- Independent tracking of provision under Transforming Rehabilitation to ensure delivery of offender management recognises and is responsive to the specific needs of female offenders and that services reflect the existing evidence base for specialist gender specific services.
- Rigorous monitoring and assessment by key government departments on the impact of funding and service cuts on women in low income and/or single parent households, to avoid perpetuating poverty related offending.
- A whole system approach to address the gender specific needs of female offenders, to include a joint board of high level leadership from key government bodies, voluntary sector specialists in women offending, and women offender projects.
- Mandatory champions for gender specific services in local and national commissioning bodies.
- Women offender forums to be created in each Community Rehabilitation Company area to enable a greater voice for service users and the organisations that support them, so that they can identify emerging need, shape local strategy, and inform service development.