One size doesn’t fit all

Seema Malhotra MP

Yesterday the justice select committee published its report women offenders: after the Corston Report. The report flags serious concerns that the government is not doing enough to address the needs of women in the justice system, resulting in a slow down of the reduction of women in prison and loss of momentum on the implementation of the Corston agenda.

The report lays out statistics from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) relating to patterns of women’s crime. Women are a minority in the justice system – women form around 5 per cent of the prison population. The “gender blindness” of justice reforms are set to result in a “one size fits all” approach which will miss the serious and complex needs of women, and jeopardise the specialist services that are so vital in working with women offenders and women at risk.

The characteristics of women’s crime are different from men. In the 12 months to June 2012, 81 per cent of women entering custody under sentence had committed non-violent offences, compared with 71 per cent of men. Over half (52 per cent) of women sentenced had committed petty offences compared with one-third (33 per cent) of men. In addition, over a quarter (26 per cent) of women sentenced to imprisonment had no previous convictions, more than double the figure for men (12 per cent). Among those serving sentences of less than 12 months the disparity is greater: 29 per cent of women, compared to 12 per cent of men, have no previous convictions.

This is not about being soft on crime, nor about treating women more favourably or implying that they are less culpable. As the cdommittee report says, it is about recognising that women face very different hurdles from men in their journey towards a law-abiding life. Neither Corston nor the justice select committee had argued against the use of custody for the most serious and violent crimes.

Women offenders tend to have more complex needs than men and very different personal circumstances and causes of crime. MoJ statistics gathered from women’s community projects data show that almost half of the women referred to the projects have needs in more than four areas. 48 per cent have drug or alcohol problems, 40 per cent have experienced domestic violence, sexual abuse or rape and 8 per cent of women are involved in prostitution. 52 per cent of the women engaging with projects have children for whom they have primary responsibility. Baroness Corston on the Today programme yesterday cited an example of a woman in prison for repeated shoplifting. Not something you might argue with, until you hear that she is a victim of domestic violence, her controlling partner does not let her have any money and she steals to feed herself and her children. Community sentences that encourage accountability and responsibility and help women address their offending behaviour can be a far more effective (and indeed cost effective) way of combining punishment with rehabilitation.

The vulnerability of women leaving prison, who may even with a short sentence have lost their home and their children or who had an abusive partner, is real. Many will literally not know where they are sleeping that night, and home as they knew it if it is still there can be a worse option than prison. Getting stability is vital, and in a safe environment, before the causes of their offending behaviour can be effectively addressed. It is in all our interests to address these matters of justice with the care it needs and based on evidence of what works. Keeping a woman in prison for a year can cost around £45,000 – add to that the costs of her children going into care. Recognising that less than a fifth of women have committed a violent offence, the Corston reforms weren’t just an equality matter but made economic sense.

There are real concerns now that the government’s ‘transforming rehabilitation’ reforms have only been designed with majority male offenders in mind, and the implications are serious for the women in justice reforms.

Select committee witnesses from the women in justice sector told us they had not been consulted on the transforming rehabilitation reforms. The proposal for through the gate support for short sentence prisoners could actually be particularly beneficial for women as they are more likely to have short sentences. However, for payment by results there is a lack of a robust consistent measures framework for what works best in rehabilitating women due to the early nature of some of the programmes since Corston, and an inconsistent approach to evaluation to date. Concerns have also been raised that as women on one indicator are seen as ‘low risk’, that the funding needed will not be built in to the payment by results reforms and there will be a disincentive for providers to invest in the more complex services that women need. The future of women’s centres remains unclear with funding no longer ringfenced. The consequences of the government’s current approach may mean little incentive to partner with the small innovative programmes in the voluntary sector that have started to make such a difference.

Whilst the government has appointed a minister for oversight of women in the justice system, and set out what it describes as ‘strategic priorities’ for women in the justice system, these were measures introduced only after the justice select committee inquiry was initiated. And a big concern has been the dismantling of the government infrastructure through the loss of the inter-ministerial group under the last government (a key Corston recommendation) and associated women in justice unit that facilitated the vital cross-government working. Addressing the needs of women in the justice system is not just a matter for the MoJ. There is no doubt that the government’s rhetoric on women and justice has improved over the last six months, but the substance and reality on the ground behind the government’s words means confidence in the MoJ’s plans is falling rather than rising, and the government’s commitment to the dual focus of working with women offenders and with women at risk still seems to be in question.

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