Women Offenders: A distinct group who need a distinct solution

Anyone whose work brings them into contact with women within the criminal justice system is likely to agree that  women offenders need a different service than their male counterparts. Women in custody suffer from much higher rates of mental health problems, sexual abuse, domestic violence and substance abuse than women in the general population.  Imprisoning them affects the lives of their children and other family members. Women have different pathways into crime from men, rarely being involved in serious crime, and it is unhelpful to treat both genders in the same way.

Prison sentences for women have risen by 27% in the last decade or so, mainly because of the increase in the severity of sentencing. But these sentences of on average less than 6 months  create disruption and turmoil for women whose lives are often already extremely difficult and chaotic – this is certainly not conducive to reducing offending.

With this picture in mind, and following the recent appointment of the new Police and Crime Commissioners, we find ourselves in an era where the effective commissioning of services for female offenders is more pertinent than ever.

Community solutions

Many Probation Trusts have been working collaboratively with partners to deliver wrap around services to women via Women’s Community Projects  (WCPS)– this year funding for the WCPs  will be divided up across  regions/clusters and it will be important to ensure that those currently in existence are supported to continue and to improve performance in terms of interim and soft outcomes.  It would be helpful if trusts within each region/cluster could work together to agree how to maintain existingWCPs, doing this in negotiation with the community commissioner.

Working with what we know

The Commissioning Intentions negotiation document recognises that the evidence base for what works with women is limited and evolving. But there is significant evidence that women are more likely to be dependent on opiates; the segmentation data should evidence this across Trusts and this (along with the wider data from local authorities) can be used to influence joint commissioning of services to address substance misuse and provide support services to women and children. Ideally this would be through more WCPs  and alternative bespoke orders.

Finding alternatives

We need to think hard about developing viable alternatives to custody for women. This could also be achieved by joint commissioning. At the moment, West Mercia Probation Trust is working on a project to provide a 7 week residential order for women at risk of a short sentence. This is definitely something from which we could learn valuable lessons and perhaps look to replicate if it’s successful.

Prevention as the best cure

I know this is stating the obvious, but if we can focus our efforts on preventative work with partners to reduce the number of young women excluded from education and going to secure accommodation then we’re on to a winner! Perhaps one answer is to divert some of the existing Youth Offending Team funding to ensure this is prioritised. This would be a good one for ‘development projects’ within the Contract negotiations. The money will be tight on all fronts but we do have to join in and do all we can on prevention.

Restoration work

Another theme begging for a women-specific approach is Restorative Justice. I’m currently looking into what is going on across Trusts and look forward to being able to share that with everyone at a later date.

Clearly work is being done in the area of women-centred provision, but if we are to continue moving towards a more effective and balanced system of support then we are not only going to need to work together as Trusts, but also work within our communities to develop viable alternatives to custody and provide sustainable routes away from crime.

Post by Liz Rijnenberg, CE of Wiltshire Probation Trust, and PCA lead on Women Offenders
[email protected]

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