Reducing Women’s Imprisonment – Summary of PRT/Soroptimist report

This Project was the result of partnership working with the UKPAC and the Prison Reform Trust to end the unnecessary imprisonment of women in the UK.

Each club in the UK was sent five copies of the Action Pack, which provided a resource for Soroptimist clubs across the whole country and a covering letter, explaining the Project. The pack contained facts and figures about women’s justice at UK level and in each devolved nation, and suggested actions that Soroptimists can take to end the unnecessary imprisonment of women who do not pose a danger to the public.

The actions fell into two parts – gathering information (see below) and effecting change. Information gathered by clubs about what is happening locally will fill critical gaps in the national picture of the state of women’s justice, serving to raise awareness of deficiencies as well as highlighting best practice.

The evidence received has been compiled into a report jointly published by the Prison Reform Trust and UKPAC in 2014. It  outlines the state of women’s justice across the UK and further progress needed. The report been presented to Ministers and policy-makers and used to promote best practice and achieve reform.

Since the Soroptimist’s UK Programme Action Committee (UKPAC) took the decision to mount a campaign, in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust, to reduce women’s imprisonment, SI members from 17 Regions across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have been working to gather information and increase awareness of how women in the criminal justice system are treated in their local areas. In 2013-14 Soroptimists asked police officers, probation officers, criminal justice social workers, magistrates, sheriffs, health professionals and managers of women’s community services what happens in their local areas to women who offend or are at risk of offending.  The report highlights progress and good practice whilst identifying constraints, gaps and shortcomings in local service provision.

There follows a short version of the report; for the full report please click on the link.

The majority of women in trouble with the law are minor but persistent offenders and often have histories of domestic violence, abuse, coercion, mental illness and addiction. Many are also mothers. Most women serve short prison sentences for non-violent offences at huge public cost. 59% of women entering prison serve custodial sentences of six months or less. Theft and handling offences account for 30% of women’s arrests and 41% of custodial sentences given to women.

Whilst Soroptimists encountered differences in governance and approach taken to women in the criminal justice system between the four nations, a number of themes (many of them inter-linked) were common across the UK.

UK-wide themes

Leadership is needed to bridge the disconnect between policy and implementation

Despite commitments to reforming women’s justice voiced by politicians of every stripe, a leadership deficit has meant UK-wide change has not been delivered. This is all the more surprising given the degree of political consensus that exists over the effectiveness of women specific responses to offending and the case for reducing the women’s prison population. Failure to capitalise on this consensus is indicative of the need for high-level political leadership across each of the UK nations.

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

Equality law requires specific treatment for groups with protected characteristics where this has been shown to be more effective in meeting their needs. Despite the evidence that women specific responses to offending are cost-effective and reduce reoffending, enabling women to live healthier, more productive lives, most women in contact with criminal justice agencies across the UK are still subject to generic systems and practices which have evolved in response to men’s offending. Soroptimists encountered instances, particularly in their dealings with the police, where equality law was routinely misinterpreted as requiring a gender neutral approach.

If gender-specific approaches to women’s offending are to be mainstreamed, all agencies and frontline staff working with women in trouble must understand and accept the basic principle that equal treatment does not mean the same treatment for everyone. Public sector duties and anti-discrimination law should be clarified and enforced

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

Despite operating across jurisdictions characterised by their differences rather than similarities, the community services identified in the course of Soroptimists’ inquiries shared an uncertain funding future and were at the mercy of budget cuts and short-term funding decisions. In each of the nations, services were expected to do more with less. In some parts of the country, services women could ill afford to lose were at risk of closing. In others, last-minute funding extensions had been granted, but in the long-term, the expectation was that services would demonstrate their worth locally and be commissioned and funded from mainstream grants and budgets. Historically, services working with vulnerable women and women in trouble have been over-looked because of the minority status of women in the criminal justice system. It is unlikely that this will change without a coherent funding strategy.

Attitudes to women in trouble are perceived as barriers to progress

Soroptimists around the UK found evidence that political, media and some public attitudes towards women in trouble are barriers to reform. In England contributors noted that an emphasis on “being tough on crime”, dispensing harsh justice and punitive sentencing reflected a lack of understanding of women’s lives and had a distorting effect on criminal justice responses to women’s offending. In Wales, practitioners thought women offenders were an unpopular group and that a general unwillingness to look at the causes of, and solutions to, women’s offending requires a cultural shift across criminal justice agencies and the wider public.

Practitioners in Scotland also identified public perceptions of women offenders as one of the key challenges facing women’s justice, with the need to challenge employers’ attitudes towards women offenders cited. Despite these concerns, evidence from public opinion polling has found that attitudes towards women who offend, and support for effective responses, are more nuanced, with strong public support for community solutions to the drivers to women’s offending. That this dichotomy exists suggests the need for strong leadership across governments and local agencies in making the case for women in trouble.

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

Soroptimists identified common drivers to custody that if tackled, could deliver reductions in the number of women imprisoned in the UK. Whilst limited availability of women-specific community orders was cited as a reason sentencers felt they had no option but to impose custodial sentences. Poor-information sharing about services available locally hampered take up of women-specific orders where they did exist. Some services had sought to address this by involving local sentencers in management boards but a more systematic approach is needed if women’s community services are to fulfil their potential as alternatives to custody. Simple practical measures, such as a local directory of services to which sentencers can refer women, would go a long way to addressing the information-deficit.

Whilst the small number of women (relative to men) in contact with criminal justice agencies is often cited as a barrier to reform, it also presents opportunities as small-scale but targeted action could lead to significant change. In each of the nations, the use of custodial remand in lieu of community alternatives was a significant driver to women’s imprisonment, despite evidence that many remanded women are given community orders on conviction. Extension of the ‘no real prospect’ device introduced in England and Wales to Northern Ireland and Scotland would begin to address overuse of remand whilst strategic expansion of approved premises provision in England would address sentencers’ concerns about women in insecure or unsafe accommodation. Likewise, restricting use of custody for non-violent crimes would go some way to addressing the disproportionate number of women imprisoned in the UK for such offences.

Soroptimists across the UK were particularly concerned by the large number of women in prison who were mothers, and found little evidence that criminal justice agencies made adjustments to accommodate women with dependents (e.g. childcare provision or interventions scheduled around nursery or school hours). Imprisoning mothers is counter-productive and costly to the state, both in the short and long-term, and could often be avoided if courts took proper account of primary caring responsibilities in sentencing decisions, and women were supported to stay with their children. Removing the availability of custody for breaching community orders where this is the result of women’s child-caring responsibilities would be a step in the right direction.

Sharing learning across jurisdictions is important

As this report demonstrates, women in contact with criminal justice agencies across the UK have much in common, and it stands to reason that, despite different approaches and legal systems, lessons which are drawn from what works in one corner of the UK will apply equally across the rest of the country. In the course of their inquiries, Soroptimists uncovered pockets of interesting practice, innovative approaches to funding and examples of integration which need to be applied more widely. Sharing learning across jurisdictions would not only ensure the spread of effective practice, but also protect against the temptation to reinvent the wheel when working with women in trouble in different parts of the country. As this report finds, what works with women in the criminal justice system is in evidence across the UK. The challenge is now to take that learning and turn it into standard practice.


These recommendations have been developed by the Prison Reform Trust to reflect the evidence gathered by Soroptimists. They draw on Soroptimists’ findings of both good practice and uneven spread of women-centred policy, practice and legislation already in operation in parts of the country and are designed to improve consistency across the UK. If implemented, these recommendations would reform women’s justice and deliver welcome reductions in the imprisonment of women in the UK.


  • The Minister for Female Offenders (Ministry of Justice) and the Minister for Women and Equalities (Government Equalities Office) should promote a gender-informed approach to women in the criminal justice system and lead a cross-government strategy for reform of women’s justice.
  • 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.
  • Criminal justice inspectorates and regulators should monitor and report on the provision of local women-specific measures, especially in light of Section 10 of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 2014. The Joint inspectorate reviewEqual but different? is an excellent example.
  • 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.
  • Measures of effectiveness against which these services are evaluated should capture distance travelled by women accessing them, as well as binary reoffending rates, to ensure wider outcomes and cost benefits can be evidenced.
  • 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.
  • Each Bench should appoint a women’s champion responsible for ensuring that all magistrates are aware of local programmes and interventions for women offenders.
  • Women’s centres should take all possible steps to ensure regular contact and information exchange with local courts, and consider inviting members of the local judiciary to join their governance structures.
  • All local courts but especially those with access to a women’s centre should consider developing a problem-solving pilot for women’s justice.
  • All agencies should undertake gender monitoring, analysis and evaluation as part of routine data collection. This should be used to develop a detailed and robust analysis of the needs of women offenders and those at risk of offending in their area, and to evidence the case for co-ordinated multi-agency responses to women’s offending, including women-specific services and community disposals in their area.
  • Learning from successful multi-agency approaches in some areas should inform the national roll-out of coordinated responses to women in the criminal justice system.
  • Health and Wellbeing Boards, Reducing Reoffending Boards, Local Criminal Justice Boards and other multi-agency partnerships, should appoint a women’s champion with responsibility for developing effective partnership-working locally.
  • The College of Policing should develop national guidance identifying good practice when working with women offenders. This should include appointment of a designated women’s lead in each force, adopting a women-specific approach to risk assessment, staff training, diversionary measures and referral to local support services.
  • 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. Learning from protocols on the treatment of women victims of crime should be applied to the treatment of women offenders to tackle the artificial distinction often made between these groups, and improve outcomes for women.
  • The Ministry of Justice should undertake an annual audit and evaluation of probation services provided in accordance with Section 10 of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 to meet the particular needs of female offenders.
  • The development of restorative justice options for women offenders should be explored, with a view to expanding its use for women at all stages of the criminal justice system.
  • The Restorative Justice Council should be asked to put costed proposals to the Advisory Board on Female Offenders.
  • A national review of Approved Premises for women should be undertaken urgently, with ring-fenced funding made available to plug gaps identified.
  • 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.
  • Local strategies to reduce women’s offending and imprisonment should take account of women’s housing needs, including the needs of those with dependent children and the consequences for children of lack of stable, secure homes, drawing on data identified in local Joint Strategic Needs Assessments.
  • The time limit for eligibility for housing benefit for sentenced prisoners should be extended from 13 weeks to six months to prevent short-sentenced women from losing their home.
  • The government should develop a strategy to increase employment opportunities and programmes for women with a criminal record. This should include employer incentives.
  • A model for providing services to women in rural areas should be developed, piloted and evaluated by National Offender Management Service (NOMS), in collaboration with existing service providers, drawing on the success of the hub approach and use of mobile facilities attached to regional women’s centres. Pooled budgets provide an opportunity to ensure cross-departmental buy-in, and long-term sustainability.
  • Women attending court, and those subject to court orders in the community, should have access to childcare facilities if needed.
  • Women should not be breached for failing to attend probation appointments where this is a direct result of their caring responsibilities.
  • Much more regard should be had to the needs of children whose mothers are caught up in the criminal justice system and steps taken by all relevant agencies to mitigate the impact.


  • A Welsh Government Minister should be designated to lead development of the All-Wales Women’s Pathfinder project, including ensuring it is adequately resourced, the pan-Wales roll-out happens as planned and its objective of improving outcomes for women in the criminal justice system is met.
  • The College of Policing should develop national guidance identifying good practice when working with women offenders. This should include appointment of a designated women’s lead in each force, adopting a women-specific approach to risk assessment, staff training, diversionary measures and referral to local support services. Best practice models identified by the Women’s Pathfinder should be applied pan-Wales as soon as possible.
  • 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. Lessons learned from protocols on the treatment of women victims of crime should be applied to the treatment of women offenders to tackle the artificial distinction often made between these groups, and improve outcomes for women.
  • 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.
  • Measures of their effectiveness in working with women offenders and evaluation models should be built into funding agreements, taking account of the methodological difficulties inherent in building an evidence base with small numbers of women.
  • Priority should be given to setting up adequate Approved Premises for women in Wales.
  • Generic health, housing and other support services should monitor and evaluate take-up and impact by gender.
  • Health services, including mental health and substance misuse, must recognise and address women’s distinct needs and characteristics.
  • The Welsh government should undertake an audit of Local Health Board provision delivered as part of criminal justice liaison services to ensure Boards are providing the minimum level of services required by guidance and the distinct needs of women are identified and met.
  • Health services aligned to the Offender Mental Health Care Pathway should recognise women’s journey through the criminal justice system as it differs to men’s and provide access points reflecting this distinction.

Northern Ireland

  • The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) should adopt a clear force-wide strategy and protocols for working with women, and provide mandatory training for police officers and staff on women-specific approaches.
  • PSNI should develop a directory of services to which women offenders can be referred.
  • Every effort should be made to maintain and extend services based on the Inspire model, building on the project’s success to date and developing valuable evidence of the effectiveness of provision in rural areas. A cost-benefit study by department of Justice for Northern Ireland (DOJNI) would likely support expansion of this service.
  • Funding to replace Ash House should be allocated as a matter of urgency and a date set for its closure and replacement with a small separate women’s facility.
  • A legislative vehicle to introduce a ‘no real prospect’ test should be sought at the earliest opportunity to tackle the overuse of remand for women.
  • Drawing on the success of youth conferencing for young offenders in Northern Ireland, a restorative justice order should be developed for use by the courts as an alternative to custody for women.


  • Police Scotland should develop force-wide training for all staff, particularly custody suite and frontline officers, which promotes understanding of the need for and legitimacy of a gender-informed approach to working with women offenders. Training should be underpinned by protocols and guidance, making clear the links between experience of domestic abuse and women’s offending, and the likelihood that for some victims of domestic abuse, their first contact with the police may be as a suspect/offender.
  • Women-specific diversionary approaches, working in conjunction with existing community provision including Community Justice Centres, should be introduced Scotland-wide.
  • Following its acceptance of the Angiolini Commission’s recommendation, the Scottish government should legislate to enable police to divert women offenders from prosecution and into rehabilitative services as part of a conditional caution. This should be done at the earliest opportunity and before the next election.
  • The Scottish government should scale back its proposal to build a new national women’s prison at HMP Inverclyde. Much of the cost of building a new prison would be better spent on embedding and expanding community alternatives to custody, and ensuring imprisonment is used as a last resort. If sufficient focus was given to community alternatives a smaller facility at HMP Inverclyde would be all that is required.
  • Community Justice Authorities, in conjunction with Criminal Justice Social Work Services and women-specific service providers, should develop local resources for use by sheriffs and other court users, detailing the availability of local services and alternative sanctions for women offenders.
  • The Scottish government should legislate to restrict the use of remand where there is no real prospect of the offender/defendant receiving a custodial sentence on conviction.
  • The Judicial Institute for Scotland should review its training for JPs and sheriffs on women in the criminal justice system in accordance with the Angiolini Commission’s recommendation.
  • There should be a presumption against remanding into custody or imprisoning women with dependent children and against use of short sentences, which can lead to loss of housing and employment, in favour of community alternatives where appropriate.
  • 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.
  • Following the extension of funding for the Reducing Reoffending Change Fund (RRCF) to 2017, the government should undertake an audit of funding for other services for women offenders with a view to providing ring-fenced funding, on a three-year basis, to ensure their sustainability beyond March 2015.
  • Where a service model has a robust evidence base for reducing women’s reoffending and achieving positive outcomes for women and their families, this success should not be jeopardised by ‘diluting the model’.

 A copy of the full report can be viewed.