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07 February 2014

Independent Taskforce calls for new cross-government strategy to divert women from crime

Effective community sentences that command the confidence of the courts should cut women’s offending, reduce the women’s prison population and save the public purse, according to a report launched today by the independent Women’s Justice Taskforce.

Over the past 15 years the women’s prison population has risen from 1,800 to over 4,000 today – an increase of 114%. Most women serve short sentences for non-violent crime and for those serving sentences of less than 12 months, almost two thirds are re-convicted within a year of release. The average cost of a women’s prison place is £56,415 a year. By contrast, an intensive community order costs in the region of £10,000 – £15,000.

The Taskforce was established in 2010 by the Prison Reform Trust, supported by the Bromley Trust, to take a fresh look at an old problem this time focussing on the economics, structure and accountability of women’s justice. Chaired by Fiona Cannon OBE, Diversity and Inclusion Director at Lloyds Banking Group, its membership includes senior representatives from the Magistrates’ Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers, probation, prisons, women’s centres, politics, the media and former offenders. The report, Reforming Women’s Justice, includes an economic analysis by Dr James Robertson, former chief economist at the National Audit Office.

The report makes clear that the current economic climate and the government’s proposed overhaul of the justice system provide a timely opportunity to look again at how women’s justice is delivered. The government’s programme to reduce unnecessary imprisonment should be accelerated, and the money saved from the women’s prison estate reinvested to support effective services for female offenders in the community. Many of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside of the justice system in health, housing, and treatment for drug addiction and mental health needs. This demands a coordinated cross-departmental approach. The report calls for greater ministerial accountability and a cross-government strategy for women’s justice with accountability built into relevant roles within government departments and local authorities.

The Taskforce says lessons can be learned from reform of the youth justice system where, in contrast to women, there has been a measurable reduction in the numbers of children in prison, the numbers of young people entering the justice system for the first time, and in youth offending. It suggests that proposals in the Ministry of Justice’s green paper, Breaking the Cycle, to devolve youth custody budgets to local authorities should be extended to women’s custodial provision.

Dr Robertson’s economic analysis draws on evidence that investing in appropriate alternatives to custody for women could reduce inter-generational offending and is more cost effective than prison in the long term. Women released from custody having served a sentence of less than 12 months are more likely to reoffend than those who received a community order; in 2008 the difference in proven reoffending rates was 8.3%. An estimated 17,700 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment and only 5% of them remain in their own home whilst their mother is in custody. According to Dr Robertson, research studies to date support the likelihood of “an overall net advantage for society from community based intervention for women offenders, compared to custodial sentences.”

However, while women’s prisons are funded centrally through the National Offender Management Service, women’s centres rely on a wide range of funding sources to enable them to supervise court orders and deliver services for vulnerable women in their area. The Taskforce heard evidence from the manager of one centre that was reliant on 37 different funding streams, with a mixture of statutory and non-statutory sources, all with different methods of evaluation and reporting arrangements.

On 11 May 2011 the Ministry of Justice announced a one off joint funding package of £3.2m between the National Offender Management Service and the Corston Independent Funders’ Coalition to keep women centres open for 2011/12. The report states: “Whilst this is undoubtedly positive news, the current situation of regular funding crises and last minute rescues is counterproductive and should be resolved … What is currently unclear is the criteria by which projects will be assessed, and the levels of funding that will be available.”

Fiona Cannon, chair of the Taskforce, said:

Instead of a punishment of last resort, women’s prisons are now seen as stopgap providers of drug detox, social care, mental health assessment and treatment and temporary housing – a refuge for those who have slipped through the net of local services. Undoubtedly women who commit crime should be punished but that punishment needs to be appropriate, proportionate and support rehabilitation . For many women, dealing with their offending in the community, or finding ways to divert them from crime in the first instance, would be a more effective way of meeting these criteria. It should be possible to reform women’s justice so that, with improved national and local coordination, better accountability and reinvestment of resources, the government can achieve a measureable reduction both in offending by women and the women’s prison population.

John Thornhill, chairman of the Magistrate’s Association, quoted in the report, said:

The government wants to reduce the prison population to save money, [but] you’re not going to save significant amounts of money unless you close whole prisons. We’ve got to do that by ensuring that for the short term offenders we have strong, challenging, and viable community programmes that they can respond to.

A former staff member at the women’s prison HMP Holloway, quoted in the report, said:

When I was working in Holloway we had situations where women would knock on the door to come back into prison because they had nowhere to go…and they would be at reception begging to come back in. Some of those women would go on to offend that very afternoon to ensure that they were back in custody.

Jackie Russell, director of Women’s Breakout, the umbrella body for organisations working with vulnerable women, said:

Crime and how we deal with the consequences of crime is always high on public and political agendas, and there is general acceptance of the need for change. I welcome this report for the clarity and focus on women that it brings to that debate, and for setting out so clearly the value that women’s community services contribute to criminal justice interventions and reducing crime.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

Most women serve very short prison sentences for non-violent offences at huge public cost. This sharp economic analysis and clear-sighted independent report should prove the catalyst for the national and local government leadership needed to reduce women’s offending and drive women’s prison numbers down like a stone.