The government case
Last week (25 October 2013) the Government published its plans for women offenders.
The plans received a pretty lukewarm response with some very strong-worded criticisms from some commentators including Farah Damji of Kazuri Properties in a post on this site.
The government published three papers:
A review of the custodial estate, undertaken by ex-Feltham Governor Cathy Robinson,
This post focuses on this last document and, in particular, its discussion of the implications for women offenders of the wholescale changes planned for the probation service under the Transforming Rehabilitation project.
Last Friday 25 October, there were 3,945 women in prison in England and Wales – 4.6% of the total prison population.
More than 70% were serving short sentences of less than 12 months according to the Corston Report, published in 2007 (this has since risen to over 80% according to Vicky Pryce).
The government doesn’t know why a much greater proportion of women than men receive short sentences and exploratory work is currently being undertaken by NOMS, the MoJ and the College of Policing (see page 12).
Perhaps the main impact of Transforming Rehabilitation on female offenders is that these women serving short term sentences will receive statutory supervision and support for the first time.
Although this is clearly a positive development, many commentators are concerned that sentencers will send more women to custody, safe in the knowledge that they will receive help as well as punishment – see Rob Allen’s recent video interview.
On page 16 of the response, the government says it recognises that gender specific needs should be met within TR:
“we have produced guidance for new providers on working with female offenders which identifies their needs and vulnerabilities. This will assist providers of services in ensuring that they work with female offenders in a way that recognises and addresses the factors associated with their offending.”
As far as I can tell, this appears to mean the guidance issued in March 2012, rather than any specific new material which looks at the issue within the context of the reforms.
Payment by results
However, the main challenge I can see is that most women in the criminal justice system have complex, entrenched needs which require intensive and extensive help.
The response paper seems to imply (page 16) that the additional £3.78 million paid to Probation Trusts for services for women offenders in the current financial year will be discontinued when new providers take over in April 2015 (see timeline here).
Since there appears to be no premium payment for working with women offenders (on either the Fee for Service or Payment by Results side), it will be difficult for new providers to pick up the tab.
It seems unlikely that it will make economic sense to pay for the excellent network of women’s centres which have increasingly been considered the key to best practice – see the stocktake paper, Annex A for details.
The other challenge is that most of the 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies will not have a women’s prison in their Contract Package Area.
The women’s custodial estate review states that the number of women’s prisons will be reduced from 13 to 10 although these will all now be designated resettlement prisons.
Nonetheless, it will be a real challenge for new providers to deliver a co-ordinated service for the high proportion of women serving their sentences a long way from home.
A defensive document
The tone of much of the government response is defensive.
It doesn’t agree with many of the Justice Committee’s points, but rarely engages in much debate about them.
The bottomline appears to be that there is no need for NOMS to get overly involved, they will merely require new providers to “articulate in their bids that they understand and will respond to the different needs of female offenders”.
It’s questionable whether this approach of leaving it to the market will be sufficient given that the overall budget for probation services is being severely cut.
If you think I’ve been too critical of the government’s response or have any view at all on the future for women offenders, please share your views via the comments section below.