There is clearly much to celebrate in the long-delayed ‘female offenders strategy‘ announced on Wednesday morning. It’s a triumph of common sense and evidence-based policy-making, both of which have been curiously absent for the last, oh I don’t know, eight years from the Ministry of Justice. The optimist in me hopes this is a sign of things to come.
Our current system is profoundly broken, dysfunctional and desperately in need of fundamental change. In 2016, there were 12 self-inflicted deaths of women. One in six women is in custody over 100 miles from her home. The reoffending rate for women serving less than 12 months is 71%. These statistics alone should convince us that prison does not work and is not performing its fundamental function of keeping people safe. A fresh approach is long overdue.
However, the pragmatist in me knows the strategy is not worth the paper it’s written on if it isn’t properly funded. Despite this government deciding to not spend £50m on building five new women’s community prisons, it can only find £5m to spend on women’s centres that enable community sentencing options. 2017 Ministry of Justice statistics show us that of the 22% of women having a court order for mental health treatment, 1% received it; for the 32% with a drug treatment order, 9% received it; for the 29% with an alcohol treatment order 5% received it. This highlights the need for a well-funded network of women’s centres, a cross-departmental approach and decent local authority funding: after almost a decade of austerity, every part of the system groans.
It’s well documented that women’s routes into and out of offending are different to men’s, so a gender-specific approach is most effective. In fact, as a country we admitted so back in 2010 when we signed up to The UN rules for Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (The Bangkok Rules) in 2010. A quick glance at the key statistics highlights themes in the lives of many women in prison and why they would be better served by non-custodial options. 31% of women have been in local authority care as a child (24% of men), 52% admit to using class A drugs in the four weeks before custody (29% for men), 65% are depressed (37% of men), 25% have suffered psychosis in their lives (15% of men), 79% told Women in Prison they had experienced domestic violence and 48% committed their crime to support someone else’s drug habit (22% of men). Almost every woman I worked with in prison and the community disclosed childhood abuse, most had grown up in a context of domestic violence and had no relationships, romantic or otherwise, in their life which weren’t coercive or abusive.
Women are far more likely to be imprisoned for a non-violent offence, 84% of convictions are for a non-violent crime. Who prosecutes women tells the story of the types of crime women are convicted of very clearly. Less than half (44%) of prosecutions are brought by the police (77% for men), 31% by the TV licensing authority, with the remainder largely made up of DVLA and the local authority – it’s women’s names on tenancies, on the TV licence and unpaid council tax bills. When a man goes to prison there is usually a female relative who keeps the home fires burning; when women go to prison, a third of them lose their homes and possessions. It’s worse for our BAME sisters. As the Lammy Review amply demonstrated, our system is racist. BAME women’s odds of imprisonment are 28% more than their white counterparts and they’re twice as likely to be arrested in the first place.
One of the most frustrating elements of the strategy is the government’s championing of women’s centres as if this was a new idea, having doggedly pursued an austerity agenda that has led to the closure of many such excellent provisions and the insistence on ‘piloting’ such work. There are excellent examples of women’s residential holistic provision (Nelson Trust) or non-residential work (Anawim). A mentoring project I worked on with women aged 18-25 released to London boroughs cost about £5,000 per woman per year and had an 18% reoffending rate. A charity I worked for finding women who had criminal records work had a 3% reoffending rate. Jean Corston’s seminal 2007 review of the women’s justice system platformed good practice and ‘what worked’. We don’t need to waste more time with unnecessary pilots – we just need to get on with it.
There’s also huge need for reform of the men’s estate: short sentences don’t work for men either and both men and women have had a bad situation made worse post-prison by the privatisation and decimation of our world-class probation system, a.k.a. Transforming Rehabilitation, thanks to transport guru Chris Grayling.
So a good, if woefully underfunded, start. An incoming Labour government would need to build on this strategy for all those in the criminal justice system, alongside kicking out private-sector provision. As Norman Kirk once said, we know that people need “someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for” – these are four good principles to underpin the extension of this work. This is clearly a move in the right direction, but for the sake of society, it needs to build from a move to a movement to a tsunami to enable our justice system to deliver justice for all.
Sara Hyde is vice-chair of the Fabian Women’s Network and an Islington councillor.