Renewed calls for schemes to divert women away from the courts for low-level offences like shop-lifting and non-payment of TV licence fines have been made in a new report aimed at overcoming the ‘inertia’ over improving outcomes for vulnerable women in the criminal justice system.
The study by the criminal justice consultants Crest notes that since the 2007 Corston review there has been widespread political consensus about the importance of improving the lot of the 3,800 women in prison who are largely serving sentences for low level offences. According to the group: ‘But despite the apparent consensus for what is needed and why, women offenders remain trapped by a criminal justice system that fails to identify their needs and circumstances, and which therefore doesn’t punish, rehabilitate or break cycles of offending behaviour effectively.’
- There are 3,800 women in prison (5% of prison population)
- Just 11% of sentences given to women offenders in 2017 were as a result of more serious offence types (indictable or triable either way)
- Serious offences accounted for 2% of offences committed by women offenders in 2017 (9% by men)
- Over a third of women (34%) of women were first-time offenders in 2017 (21% of men)
- About three quarters (72%) are serving a sentence of less than six months for what are overwhelmingly non-violent offences (compared to 56% of men)
- Read the report Ending the inertia: a plan to transform outcomes for women offenders here
Baroness Corston’s review called for a ‘radically different… woman-centred’ approach and made 43 recommendations, including the expansion of women’s centres, diversion schemes, and replacing women’s prisons with smaller local custodial centres. As the Crest paper notes, despite cross-party support including the backing of three successive governments, outcomes for women offenders remain unchanged, the number of women prisoners has ‘only decreased marginally’ and, of the 43 recommendations, only two had been implemented.
It is well established that vulnerability is both a cause and a consequence of women’s offending. As the report notes, almost two-thirds (63%) of women in custody have experienced domestic violence compared to less than one in ten men (7%) and that offending is often linked to grooming or shoplifting to support a partner.
Together with the Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), prisons, probation and health services, the police, and charities in Avon and Somerset and the West Midlands, Crest has devised a plan to remove the barriers that prevent effective rehabilitation for women offenders. The report makes three primary recommendations: removing centralised models for rehabilitation, reducing the fragmentation of service provision; and shifting service provision from singularly criminal justice to local government and the NHS.
More specifically, the report highlights that women in need of intervention need to be identified at an earlier date, financial planning support should be offered with fiscal penalties, and more alternatives to custodial sentences should be used. Further recommendations include developing a better understanding of women entering the criminal justice system through non-policing routes (i.e. prosecution by TV licensing) and establishing ‘retail-based diversionary schemes’ for women committing shoplifting offences.
The report stresses that patterns of offending are generally gender-specific, and gender-informed punishment, rehabilitation and probation services should concurrently be provided, able to address the complex web of vulnerability characterising the lives of women offenders.