Addressing the Female Offender Crisis: Strategies for Change

In the November 2020 National Statistics report on Women in the Criminal Justice System, it was reported that, while women only make up 5% of the prison population, incidents of self-harm per individual was over twice as high for females compared to males.

In addition, as highlighted by the HM Inspectorate of Prisons survey 2019/20, a significantly higher proportion of females reported negative results for questions related to problems, such as mental health, physical disability and housing worries, on arrival at prison. In addition, of those who reoffend, the frequency is higher among females than males.

Clearly, the current system isn’t working as well as it should for female offenders. But what is being done to address these issues?

The Female Offender Strategy

In June 2018, the government outlined the need for a change in the criminal justice system’s approach to female offenders, highlighting the negative social impacts of criminalising vulnerable people, and the positive effects of good community management. Defining a new vision and strategic priorities, the Female Offender Strategy outlined a locally-led, partnership-focused and evidence-based framework for how to reduce the number of women entering the criminal justice system.

The strategy included a number of commitments including £5 million of cross-government funding for community provision, and a pilot programme for residential women’s centres. A reduction in the number of women serving short custodial sentences was also a key target of this new approach. While these actions are predominantly for England, the document highlighted how the Welsh government shared the same ambitions, and would use its powers to work on delivering better support, for the Welsh context.

As a follow up, Lord Farmer was commissioned to deliver a report on the importance of family ties in relation to reducing reoffending and intergenerational crime. His recommendations published in June 2019 included the need for liaison and diversion services, and police, to take better note of women’s key relationships, to help ensure improved outcomes for them and their families, and also for more flexibility with Assisted Prison Visits.

Improving Partnership Working through the Concordat

In a further step to implement the Strategy, in December 2020 the government released The Concordat on Women in or at risk of contact with the Criminal Justice System. Seeking to improve partnership working at a local and national level, but not intending to replace good practice that is already working well, this agreement outlines a number of actions and steps to ensure accountability in reaching more positive outcomes for women.

A key feature of the agreement is to champion a gender- and trauma- informed and responsive approach to dealing with the needs of women. Underlining the importance of this in order for any response to be effective, training needs for the criminal justice system workforce will be identified to ensure all staff are able to support vulnerable women, using an evidence-based approach.

In addition, to better understand the nuances of the experiences of women within the system, national data collecting will be strengthened to disaggregate according to sex and other protected characteristics. A new local data tool is also in formation, with a view to enable local organisations to better adapt their services according to the needs of women.

Progress on all the steps outlined in this Concordat is due to be shared in a “One Year On” report, for which the Ministry of Justice will work with all co-signatories to coordinate inputs on achievements and updates.

How Can the Sector Adapt?

A Whole System Approach is key to strengthening support and services for women across the criminal justice system, and for those at risk of offending. While there is no one-size-fits-all structure for this, the Concordat does outline a proven approach to establishing such a programme in a local area, by following five steps:

  • Choosing a project lead
  • Scoping and mapping
  • Engaging stakeholders
  • Identifying governance structures
  • Creating a vision and core objectives

Ensuring resilient governance structures in particular will be key for the sustainability of the partnership-working this approach requires. Having shared objectives brings a multitude of benefits, including effectively addressing areas of need through division of labour, and the Welsh Government and HMPPS Wales' Joint Framework is cited as a successful example of this. Co-commissioning can also help overcome budgetary challenges that partners may face in delivering a Whole Systems Approach, as effectively demonstrated by Willowdene (West Mercia).

Additional Funding for Women and the Criminal Justice System

Reiterating a commitment to improving strategies for reducing offending and reoffending among women, in January 2021 the government announced £2 million of new funding to support community services that work with vulnerable women. This demonstrates a welcome pledge to focus more on prevention and providing women with the support they need to detract from the appeal of crime.

Further investment will also be made in prisons to improve conditions for those in custody, including to increase the availability of single cells. Some places will also allow overnight visits from children, to help the transition to a female offender’s release.

However, a recent report by the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) and Justice for Women outlined how failures within the criminal justice system have meant women have been prosecuted for violent responses for domestic abuse, and many of those in custody have been, and are being, let down by the way the system has dealt with their actions. With anticipation around the passing of the Domestic Abuse Bill being felt acutely across a wide range of sectors involved in supporting women, CWJ’s report reinforces the need for female-focused strategies relating to the Bill to align with the Female Offender Strategy. The Howard League for Penal Reform has also outlined the case for redirecting funding from prison places towards focusing even more on the community support services crucial for an effective long-term approach to reducing female offending. 

A Time for Change?

Undeniably, the criminal justice sector now has its eyes firmly on women, and the focus is unlikely to wane any time soon. Agencies involved in preventing offending among females, as well as those responding to allegations and proof of crimes committed by women, need to join forces to ensure effective use of the latest funding, and capitalise on the government’s commitment to improve outcomes for women.

While debates around prison funding and reform will continue, for men as well as for women, the focus now has to be on strengthening Whole Systems Approaches at local and national levels to prevent offending by providing vulnerable women with quality support and services, and also ensuring a commitment to trauma- and gender- informed work across the entire criminal justice system.