Understanding the Challenges Faced by Women in the Criminal Justice System

According to a report by the Prison Reform Trust in 2017, 53% of females in prison are reported to have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood and 60% of women in prison are a victim of domestic violence. Furthermore, it also found that there are now over 2,200 more women in prison in 2019 than there were 25 years ago.

How Are the Government Helping Vulnerable Women?

With this in mind, the Government have developed a ’Female Offender Strategy for Women in The Criminal Justice System’ in 2018 and re-visited the report in 2019. As part of the strategy, there is a strong push for a whole-system approach to caring for women in the criminal justice system through early intervention, community solutions, better custody and a framework for Implementation. Key government commitments in the strategy include a commitment to working with local and national partners to develop a pilot for ‘residential women’s centres’ in over 5 sites across England and Wales, reducing the number of women serving short custodial sentences and replacing Prison Service Order (PSO) 4800 with a Women’s Policy Framework.

Furthermore, Lord Farmer released a review into ‘The Importance of Strengthening Female Offenders' Family and other Relationships to Prevent Reoffending and Reduce Intergenerational Crime’ in 2019. The main findings in the review was the significance of community alternatives and utilising technology to improve rehabilitation of female offenders.  The key guidance from the review included the need for more use of Release on Temporary Licence to maintain family relationships, the need for women’s prisons to include permanent on-site social workers and increased access to information on key family relationships.

Provided that health issues are a large part of why many female offenders commit a crime, Public Health England have also developed the ‘Gender Specific Standards to Improve Health and Wellbeing for Women in Prison in England’ in 2018. The standards set out a range of evidence-based good practice in addressing the health and wellbeing needs of women in prison. The standards highlight key requirements around health and wellbeing, mental health, reducing substance misuse, violence and abuse and caring for females’ physical health and wider families. The document aims to help prisoners to adopt health behaviour patterns which can be utilised back in the community.

What Examples of Best Practice Exist Out There?

Some progressive examples of caring for women while they are in custody can be seen through the Community Sentence Treatment Requirement in Northamptonshire. The programme provides a community-based sentence and has helped to reduce reoffending and mental health issues through treatment such as counselling at a women’s centre. The success of the programme is clear since it has led to a 95% success rate with only 4 of 75 women taking part in the pilot breaching their order and returning to court.

To reduce the number of females entering the criminal justice system, decrease the number experiencing harm within prison and re-integrate females and their families into their local community post-custody, it is vital that the criminal justice system, local authorities, charities and other key public sector providers come together to innovate and take a whole-system approach. By doing so, they will drastically reduce the negative experiences by women in the criminal justice system and ultimately reduce the rate of reoffending females in society.