Skip to main content
17 March 2017

Postcode lottery in arrest rates risks drawing vulnerable women into the criminal justice system

New research published today by the Prison Reform Trust reveals significant variations in how police forces deal with women who come into the criminal justice system.

Fair Cop? Improving outcomes for women at the point of arrest provides solutions and examples of positive work being delivered by police to tackle low level, non-violent crime committed by women. However, the report also found that opportunities are being missed to intervene early, reduce women’s offending and protect the public.

A separate analysis of arrest figures shows that whilst the majority of police forces in England and Wales have seen some decline in the number of women arrested in the last year, in nearly two-fifths (37%) of police forces arrests of women rose. The largest increase was seen in Lancashire, where arrests rose by 46% between 2014/15-2015/16. Similar rises were also seen in Dorset (45%) and Hertfordshire (40%).

However, impressive reductions seen in other police force areas give hope that similar results are within grasp if dedicated efforts to intervene early, and tackle the problems that drive people into crime are provided.

In the last year the number of arrests of women in areas such as Leicestershire, Greater Manchester, and Avon and Somerset have fallen, dropping by 29%, 24% and 17% respectively.

Women are more likely to be serving a sentence in prison for theft and other non-violent crimes than men. In many of these instances an out of court disposal may be appropriate, however the use of out of court options for women who have committed low-level offences fell by over 45% since 2007.

Women represent a small minority of those in the criminal justice system—in 2015 there were 157 first time women offenders per 100,000 of the population, compared with a first-time offending rate of 439 per 100,000 of the male population. The drivers to and patterns of women’s offending are different so a distinct approach is needed. 57% of women in prison report a history of domestic abuse and 53% report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child, compared to 27% of men.

Writing in the foreword of the report, Dame Vera Baird QC, Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria said:

“Like many of my fellow Police and Crime Commissioners I firmly believe that crime prevention is the way forward…[This report] showcases how local areas are responding to the changing demands on police resources at a time when money is short…I hope this discussion paper will raise awareness of the practical steps now being taken across England and Wales to improve outcomes for women at the point of arrest. Not only can this lead to less crime and fewer victims, but it also pays dividends for the families and communities who depend on the women who are helped.”

Drawing on detailed research and interviews with the police, probation staff, women’s voluntary sector providers and national policy-makers, the report examines current practice and demonstrates how problem-solving approaches can improve outcomes for both criminal justice agencies and women in trouble with the law.

Author of the report Dr Thomas Guiney of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“The evidence is clear that point of arrest can be the ideal opportunity for effective early intervention, giving women the support they need to tackle the issues leading to their offending. Our report shows that this is working well in some areas—where police and other agencies are collaborating to ensure a proportionate and fair outcome. More must be done to ensure these services are available across England and Wales.”

Commenting, Jenny Earle, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s programme to reduce women’s imprisonment said:

“Most of women’s offending is rooted in financial hardship, abusive relationships, addiction and poor mental health. For too long the criminal justice system has been used as a safety net to get women’s lives back on track, when what is needed is treatment and support. The government has found £1.3bn for new prisons, but community schemes across the country providing vital support for women in trouble battle to survive. The government should be investing in the future of those services, not pouring yet more money down the prison building drain.”