SI Programme Action – Reducing Women’s Imprsionment

 Transforming Lives – reducing women’s imprisonment         10 February 2015


This report (PDF document) Transforming Lives – reducing women’s imprisonment, by SI (Soroptimist International) and the Prison Reform Trust is about the experience of women in the criminal justice system and the chequered picture of efforts to reduce the number of women who are imprisoned. It explains gaps in service provision, while highlighting some high quality local practices.

It is based on a huge volume of work by SI volunteers, who gathered evidence in their local areas about women who offend or who are at risk of offending. This work took place in 2013-14, following the launch in April 2013 of the Soroptimists’ Action Pack on Reducing Women’s Imprisonment.

The report includes key findings and makes a series of recommendations aimed at reducing the over-imprisonment of women and to make progress towards a more effective and humane approach to women’s justice.

This briefing focuses on the parts of the report that are most relevant to councils and Police & Crime Commissioners. It will be interesting for PCCs, and for councillors or council officers with responsibility for adult social care, as well as those involved with Health & Wellbeing Boards and Local Criminal Justice Boards. The briefing includes selected, relevant examples of recommendations from the report.

Briefing in full

The report begins with a summary, with the key UK-wide findings. It is then divided into sections for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Each country section starts by setting the context, in terms of key statistics as well as policy and current activity. It then examines country-specific themes and recommendations.

Context highlights – statistics

  • Between 1995-2010 the women’s prison population in England more than doubled.
  • In 2010, an estimated 17,240 children were separated from their mother by imprisonment.
  • Women in prison are almost twice as likely as their male counterparts to have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse.
  • Women in prison are more likely than their male counterparts to self-harm or to have a problem with hard drugs.
  • In 2011-12 only 8.4 per cent of women leaving prison had a positive resettlement outcome on employment, compared to 27.3 per cent for men.

Context highlights – policy

  • SI’s inquiry took place at a time when significant changes to the criminal justice and health services in England and Wales were being carried out, including the first Police and Crime Commissioner elections, the reorganisation of probation services and a review of the women’s secure estate.
  • Responsibility for women in the criminal justice system in England and Wales lies with the Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties. The Westminster government set out its approach in March 2013, which included commitments to women-specific measures.
  • The Ministry of Justice undertook a stock take of women’s community provision which identified 53 women’s centres or hubs then operating and stated a commitment that 22 new centres or hubs would be operating by April 2014.
  • In response to pressure from SI and the PRT, the government introduced a new requirement for the Secretary of State for Justice to ensure that arrangements for supervision “meet the particular needs of female offenders”. This was part of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 and in force from June that year.
  • Government contracts with Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) include women-specific outputs, but there are concerns that the commissioning model could undermine the sustainability of specialist services for women offenders.
  • In Northern Ireland the Department for Justice (DoJ) published Reducing offending among women 2013-16, which seeks to promote a “gender informed approach throughout the criminal justice system”. Progress is overseen by a Women’s Strategy Steering Group, chaired by the DoJ. This approach sits within the wider Strategic Framework for Reoffending, published in 2013.
  • The approach of the Scottish government is based to a large extent on the Angliolini Commission on Women Offenders, which was published in June 2012. The report outlines the programme of reform undertaken by the Scottish government.

These highlights should help to demonstrate the case for women-specific approaches to imprisonment and give an indication of the current policy framework.

Key overall themes

The report makes clear the great variance of experience in different areas. Despite that the following UK-wide themes were identified.

  • Leadership is needed to bridge the disconnect between policy and implementation

The report demonstrates the high degree of political consensus on the effectiveness of women-specific responses to offending and the case for reducing women’s prison population. It also shows that despite this consensus, UK-wide change has not been delivered due to a deficit of high-level political leadership across each UK country.

  • Gender-specific approaches are the exception but should be the rule

SI have identified a significant body of evidence that women-specific responses to offending are cost-effective, but the research also shows that it is common for agencies to misunderstand equality law and apply generic practices, evolved in response to men’s offending. For example, West Midlands Police reported to SI members that they train their officers to treat all suspected offenders equally and not to discriminate on the basis of gender. Equality law requires specific treatment for groups with protected characteristics where this has been shown to be more effective in meeting their needs.

Example recommendation: Guidance should be developed by lead agencies, including the police, health and local authorities, to ensure policy and practice is compliant with equalities legislation. All mandatory staff training should include statutory duties under the Equality Act 2010.

  • Uncertain funding of services working with women in trouble is counter-productive

The report highlights how many of the community services offering good practice in the area of women’s offending have uncertain futures in terms of funding. Some services doing important work with women are at risk of closing. It also explains how services working with vulnerable women in the criminal justice system have a history of being over-looked because of the minority status of women in the system (less than 5%).

Example recommendation: A national network of women-specific community services, including multi-agency one-stop shops and outreach services, should be funded by government, drawing on cross-departmental budgets on three to five year funding cycles and building in savings from the re-rolling or closure of women’s prisons.

  • Attitudes to women in trouble are perceived as barriers to progress

The evidence gathered by SI showed a range of attitudes towards women’s offending, but that negative attitudes and a lack of understanding of the lives of women offenders undermined efforts to address underlying causes of the offending. The series of statistics included in the report about women offenders in each UK country help to explain differences between women in the criminal justice system and their male counterparts.

Example recommendation: Local authorities and housing associations should give housing priority to women with vulnerabilities that put them at risk of offending – including women affected by abusive relationships, drug or alcohol problems, or poor mental health.

  • There are clear opportunities to reduce the women’s prison population

The report identifies common drivers of custody that if tackled, could lead to a drop in the number of women imprisoned. One such driver is the limited availability of women-specific community orders. In parts of the UK there is a disconnect between the criminal justice system and local services for women offenders, resulting in a lack of awareness of alternative approaches among magistrates. Small-scale and targeted action could have a significant impact, due to the relatively low numbers of women in contact with criminal justice agencies.

Example recommendation: Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), in consultation with the police, council and service providers, should develop directories of local services for women offenders. Information on services available locally should be shared with the National Probation Service to inform pre-sentence reports and sentence recommendations. (Note – the purpose here is to make sure that those making decisions about sentencing are aware of all the options available).

  • Sharing learning across jurisdictions is important

SI’s research identified good practices across the UK and the report argues that there is significant scope for sharing successful approaches. It explains how women in the criminal justice system across the UK have much in common and that what works well in one area could work well in another.

Regional highlights


A key factor in England that was reported to SI members was a lack of co-ordination, partnership working and data collection about women. Joint working and inter-agency communication are often poor. The low number of women in custody from any one area tends to mean women’s imprisonment is not a priority issue.

The report identified sound working relationships between criminal justice agencies and community services in some areas, such as the West Midlands, but in other areas there is a lack of alignment between local authority processes. It is clear that local councils have an important role to play in supporting effective provision.

Example recommendation: Health and Wellbeing Boards, Reducing Re-offending Boards, Local Criminal Justice Boards and other multi-agency partnerships, should appoint a women’s champion with responsibility for developing effective partnership-working locally.


Wales is home to the Integrated Offender Management (IOM) Cymru All-Wales Pathfinder Project, described in the report as ‘one of the most ambitious implementations of IOM in the UK. It involves all four Welsh police forces and a wide range of agencies, including community safety partnerships and Local Health Boards. The project is focussed on three objectives: (1) reducing arrest, (2) diversion from custody and (3) improving community provision.

There are many positive indicators for the project, but it is still at a relatively early stage and its future success is uncertain. The report recommends that a Welsh government Minister be designated to lead the development of the project, to ensure it is adequately resourced and is rolled-out across Wales.

Northern Ireland

The Inspire Project (PDF document) is a women-only multi-agency service that has been shown to be effective in Belfast and there are plans to roll it out across Northern Ireland. SI members found that, while there are some good links and the potential to develop multi-agency working across the country, the project’s future is uncertain due to financial pressures.

The report recommends that the service should be maintained and extended and that a cost-benefit study would likely support this proposal.


Scotland faces a similar set of challenges to the rest of the UK, such as gaps in service provision among examples of good practice and the uncertainty of future funding. There are cases of local authorities leading on developing effective local responses, such as the Connections programme in Aberdeen.

Example recommendation: Local authorities should ensure their Criminal Justice Social Work Service provides women-specific services. In rural communities, virtual hubs or mobile outreach services should be developed.

NOTE – the report refers to plans to build a new £75 million women-only prison at Inverclyde. The Scottish government announced on 26th January that this plan has been dropped in favour of looking at smaller community-based facilities across the country.

Additional points

Women-specific services in rural areas

The research identified clear gaps and inherent difficulties in service provision in rural areas, in that they tend to be expensive to run and often require women to travel long distances to access them. There are examples, such as through mobile services or hub-based approaches, that show ways of countering these challenges.

Approved Premises

These used to be known as probation and bail hostels and provide enhanced residential supervision for offenders and individuals on bail. A key finding of the report was that many regions reported insufficient Approved Premises for women, or none at all. A national review was suggested, along with ring-fenced funding to plug gaps.

Police approaches

Across the UK police approaches to working with women offenders vary widely, beyond complying with basic requirements such as same-sex searching. Most police forces do not have a designated lead for women detainees. Some forces have developed innovative, women-specific approaches to diversion, such as the AVERT pilot in Lancashire, part funded by the PCC.

The report highlights the fact that many police forces have protocols applicable to women as victims. It argues that, given the high-proportion of women offenders who are themselves victims of domestic abuse and other crimes, it is important for the police to apply the lessons learned from these protocols to their work with women offenders.

Example recommendation: Police training, protocols and diversionary measures concerning or aimed at vulnerable people more generally should take explicit account of women’s specific needs and characteristics.


The report could be useful to agencies seeking to improve the experience of women in the criminal justice system and to reduce the over-imprisonment of women. It includes a large number of recommendations that PCCs and councils can work on, as well as case studies of good practice or innovative work. Inevitably there are issues with funding and cross-agency working, but there is much that can be done to improve the current state of affairs by replicating and refining existing work. Securing sources of funding remains a significant obstacle.

It is important to be aware that the backdrop for all of this is the Corston Report (PDF document) of 2007, which was put together following the death of six women in custody at Styal prison. It called for a distinct, radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, women-centred, integrated approach. In 2013 the Justice Select Committee quite rightly condemned the delays in implementing that report and since then a more vigorous approach has been taken by the Westminster government and other agencies. There may be some early signs of improvement.

The SI report can be downloaded at: (PDF document)

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