Emphasis on diversion
Earlier today, the Ministry of Justice published its long-awaited Female Offender strategy to a generally positive welcome. The headlines are:
- New pilots for 5 residential women’s centres across England and Wales;
- Greater focus on innovative community provisions to keep women away from prison;
- The scrapping of plans to build community prisons for women; and
- Lord Farmer will conduct an in-depth review into family ties – around a quarter of female offenders have dependent children.
The strategy starts by setting the context for women’s offending, well-known to most readers of this blog:
On average female offenders commit less serious offences than male offenders and often pose a low or medium risk of serious harm to the public. Yet the reoffending rate among women is 22.9% for the April to June 2016 cohort, often committing non-violent, low-level but persistent offences, such as shop theft. Furthermore, chaotic lives and complex needs often mean female offenders have repeated needs for services and a disrupted family life. Female offenders cost the Government approximately £1.7bn in 2015/16, including estimated police costs of c.£1bn. This excludes wider social costs, such as the cost of intergenerational offending.
It is clear, therefore, that tackling and reducing the cycle of offending amongst women could have significant benefits to victims, families, and Government, as well as to female offenders themselves. Outcomes for women in custody can be worse than for men: for example, the rate of self-harm is nearly five times as high in women’s prisons. This disparity is highly troubling and it is right to seek to create equal opportunity for men and women in the CJS to rehabilitate themselves. Baroness Corston’s seminal report, A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System (2007), highlighted that the factors that can lead men and women to commit crime, and to reoffend, can vary significantly, as can the way men and women respond to interventions. Our own evidence review suggests that ensuring interventions are tailored appropriately to the particular needs of women can be more effective than applying a generic approach to men and women alike.
The MoJ also published the infographic below summarising key facts and figures about the way women are currently treated by the justice system.
The strategy goes on to make three main arguments in favour of change:
- Criminalising vulnerable individuals has broader negative social impacts
- Short custodial sentences do not deliver the best results for female offenders
- Good community management works
The strategy also sets out three key objectives:
- Fewer women coming into the criminal justice system
- Fewer women in custody (especially on short-term sentences) and a greater proportion of women managed in the community successfully
- Better conditions for those in custody.
The strategy details three first steps:
- The investment of £5 million of cross-Government funding over two years in community provision for women. As part of this, today we are launching an initial £3.5m grant competition for 2018/19 and 2019/20, which includes £2 million of funding explicitly for female offenders who have experienced domestic abuse. We recognise that the availability and sustainability of these services, such as women’s centres, is essential for ensuring that we can deliver the vision we have outlined. An additional £1.5m will be invested to support the development of community-based provision for female offenders, such as residential support.
- A commitment to work with local and national partners to develop a pilot for ‘residential women’s centres’ in at least five sites across England and Wales. This supports our vision to see fewer women in custody by developing more options for supporting women in the community. We know that many women, particularly on short custodial sentences, can be better supported in the community on robust and effective community sentences. We consider that the availability of intensive residential support options, both at the point of sentencing and on release, is key for achieving the changes we want to see. The pilot will enable us to test models which provide safe accommodation and holistic support for women in the community so that they can address the underlying causes of their offending.
- Reducing the number of women serving short custodial sentences. If we can successfully divert women from crime so as to close one or more prisons, we want to see at least part of the revenue used to further the aims of this strategy, subject to the wider context at that time.
To support implementation, the MoJ also published guidance for the police on working with vulnerable women, developed in partnership with the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) which focuses on early intervention.