Transforming Lives – reducing women’s imprisonment – The launch of the Report by Prison Reform Trust and Soroptimist International UKPAC Nov 2002
Soroptimists highlight lack of community provision for women in trouble in a report to be presented to Justice Minister the Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP.
Too many women in the UK are still being sent to prison instead of receiving community sanctions and targeted support to address the causes of their offending, says a leading women’s voluntary organisation.
The women’s prison population doubled between 1995 and 2010. Most women in prison serve short prison sentences for non-violent offences and many have themselves been victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. In 2011 the Soroptimist UK Programme Action Committee resolved to work with the Prison Reform Trust to reduce women’s imprisonment.
Now a wealth of information gathered by 139 Soroptimists clubs across the UK has been distilled into a report that is intended to spur national and local governments into action. The report recommends the development in England and Wales of a cross-government strategy for women’s justice, led by the Minister for Female Offenders. Recommendations for improvements to the oversight of women’s justice in Scotland and Northern Ireland are also highlighted.
The report will be presented to the Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP, the Justice Minister with responsibility for female offenders in England and Wales, at a meeting of the Advisory Board on Female Offenders on Tuesday 16 December.
The report paints a mixed picture of the criminal justice system’s response to women. It profiles some excellent local initiatives whilst mapping overall patchy provision of services for vulnerable women. Findings include:
- There are no women-only centres in North Devon, Somerset or Dorset.
- There are no specialist residential facilities for women in Avon and Somerset, with Elizabeth Fry in Reading the nearest approved premises for women from these areas.
- There are no approved premises available for women in Merseyside.
- There are no approved premises for women in Wales.
- There are no women’s centres in Warwickshire, although probation operates a women-specific outreach service.
Soroptimists were particularly concerned by the large number of women in prison who are mothers, and found little evidence that criminal justice agencies made adjustments to accommodate women with dependents (such as childcare provision or interventions scheduled around nursery or school hours). For instance, there are no childcare facilities for Merseyside women completing community orders.
The report’s key findings include a need for sustained political leadership, the importance of stable funding for women’s community services, the scope for more effective information sharing, and the opportunity to share learning about “what works” across the UK. Differences in approach between England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are identified whilst a number of common UK-wide themes are highlighted.
Soroptimists have already played a key role in achieving change in England and Wales by lobbying for a statutory foothold for women-specific provision in the criminal justice system. Section 10 of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 requires that women’s needs must be identified and addressed in arrangements for the supervision and rehabilitation of offenders. This is a breakthrough, and will help in holding the Westminster government to account and putting an end to the marginalisation of women’s needs.
Despite commitments to reforming women’s justice voiced by politicians of every stripe, a striking degree of political consensus on the effectiveness of women-specific responses to offending and a sound social and economic case for reducing the women’s prison population, progress has been slow.
The recommendations in the report were developed by the Prison Reform Trust to reflect the evidence gathered by Soroptimists. They include improved training, protocols and guidance for those working in criminal justice agencies to ensure appropriate responses to women offenders, greater regard to the needs of children, piloting of problem-solving courts for women, the production of directories of local women’s services for use by probation and court services, and a roll-out of co-ordinated local multi-agency interventions.
Commenting, Dr Kay Richmond, who chairs the Soroptimist International UK Programme Action Committee, said:
“Ending violence against women has been at the core of Soroptimist project work for many years and as violent and coercive relationships are so often a driver to women’s offending we welcomed this opportunity to provide a voice for women who are very often victims themselves. I am delighted that Soroptimist Clubs in the UK have contributed to this report. We value this partnership with the Prison Reform Trust and hope our report will inspire the changes necessary to provide more community-based solutions to women’s minor offending.”
Richard Monkhouse, Chair of the Magistrates’ Association, said:
“The Magistrates’ Association commends the Soroptimists for gathering such useful information about effective work with women who offend. Women are in the minority of those who appear before our courts and information about preventative work and positive outcomes from community sentences is of particular interest to our Members.”
Juliet Lyon, Director, Prison Reform Trust, said:
“Very few women in prison have committed serious or violent crimes. Without any risk to the public, the women’s prison population could be reduced by at least half. Through concerted action and sustained leadership, the number of young people aged under 18 entering prison has successfully reduced by 60% in the last few years. This detailed report by the Soroptimists provides the information and inspiration needed to reform women’s justice across the UK.”
Clare Jones, National Lead for WomenCentre Halifax welcomed the report saying:
“Localised women specific services have a vital role to play in keeping more women out of prison through use of community alternatives which will benefit women, children and families and will reduce crime in communities.”
Joy Doal, Chief Executive of Anawim Women’s Centre in Birmingham which has shown itself to be very effective in reducing women’s reoffending commented:
We know and have all the evidence needed that Women’s centres work in helping women turn their lives around. What is lacking is sufficient support and coordinated funding. Policy and action need to be joined up. The report highlights the areas with no women’s centres but even those that do have them such as Birmingham, where we are, can only scratch the surface. We could do so much more given adequate resources. Please Simon Hughes bring some direction into this area of work, when women turn away from crime the impact is immense not just on them but their children, families & society at large.’
A short summary of the report is on this website’s “Our Work” page.
The full report can be viewed here
The report highlighted the high number of women with mental health problems in prison and echoed some of the findings of the 2012 commission on Women offenders headed by the former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini.
The Scotland section of the report concluded:
“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.”
One of the report’s 10 further recommendations was that sheriffs and judges should have a presumption against custody for women with dependent children.
It also recommended the greater use of community disposals instead of short sentences, that local authorities ensure their criminal justice social work service provide women specific services and that mobile outreach services should be developed in rural communities.
“The National” paper in Scotland ran a 2 page article on these issues. The latest press releases suggest that Michael Matheson MSP is accepting the ideas put forward in the UKPAC/PRT and other reports.
Mr Matheson said he had been studying the current plans and listening to views expressed by a number of key interest groups.
He said: “It does not fit with my vision of how a modern and progressive country should be addressing female offending. We need to be bolder and take a more radical and ambitious approach in Scotland. When it comes to the justice system, we must be smarter with the choices we make and be more sophisticated in the way in which we deal with female offenders.”
The government said it would now undertake a period of “extensive engagement with key partners” including the Scottish Prison Service with a view to investing in smaller regional and community-based custodial facilities across the country.
Billie Wealleans, Soroptimist International Programme Action Chairman (Scotland North), said she was pleased that the prison at Inverclyde would not be going ahead. She believes that using the UKPAC/PRT report and implementing the recommendations included in the Angiolini report should be the way ahead through embedding and expanding community alternatives to custody, and ensuring imprisonment is used as a last resort.
The newsletter from Prison reform trust has a section dealing with the conference which Margaret spoke at and the subsequent information about the scrapping of plans to build the prison.
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