Women offenders: radical reform still urgently needed

A leading prison reformer argues that most women in prison today in England and Wales could be rehabilitated more effectively through a community sentence.

This morning I gave evidence on behalf of the Howard League for Penal Reform to the Justice Select Committee’s inquiry on women offenders. Here I outline a brief history of attempts to address this challenging policy area and look forward at what needs to be done.

The Corston Report

More than six years ago, in 2006, Baroness Corston was asked by the then Labour government to conduct a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. The Corston Report (PDF here) was published in March 2007 and recommended “radical change in the way we treat women throughout the whole criminal justice system”.

Baroness Corston’s report highlighted the need for a distinct approach to women in the criminal justice system and rightly acknowledged that treating men and women the same results in inequality of outcomes. In her introduction Baroness Corston wrote:

“Women have been marginalised within a system largely designed by men for men for far too long and there needs to be a ‘champion’ to ensure that their needs are properly recognised and met.”

Baroness Corston’s recommendations included an extension of the network of women’s community centres to support women who offend or are at risk of offending, the appointment of a 'champion' to ensure the needs of women in the criminal justice system are properly recognised and a re-design of women’s custody, moving away from large women’s prisons to smaller, more local custodial units.

I am the first to acknowledge there have been some very positive changes (for example the number of women committing suicide whilst serving a prison sentence has fallen significantly) but there is still a huge amount that needs to be done to improve conditions for women in our criminal justice system. Most women who are in prison today should not be in custody and could be rehabilitated more effectively through a robust community sentence. Even though they are nearly six years old Baroness Corston’s recommendations are as relevant today as the day they were published.

Women in the Criminal Justice System

Women account for about 5 per cent of people in prison in England and Wales. In January 2013 there were just under 4,000 women in prison. Figures from the Ministry of Justice tell us that the majority of women sent to prison receive short sentences; in 2011 65 per cent of women received custodial sentences of up to and including six months. This is despite the fact that we know short term prison sentences are disproportionately damaging to women and their children.

Women in prison are more than ten times more likely to self-harm than men in prison. Visiting a women’s prison, as I have many times over the years, is a truly depressing experience. Women who end up in prison have often experienced sexual, emotional and physical abuse, have addictions to drugs and alcohol and have mental health problems. Many of the offences committed by women are inextricably linked to these problems. The last place they ought to be is locked in a prison cell - often a very long way from the support network of friends and family.

What is being done?

Following publication of the Corston report the then Labour government appointed a Ministerial Champion for women in the criminal justice system, announced more than £15 million to invest in community services for women offenders and women at risk of offending and established a cross-departmental criminal justice women’s unit. There was a clear focus from government and these changes were steps in the right direction.

Since May 2010 the rhetoric coming from Ministers has been positive but I am increasingly frustrated that this rhetoric has not translated into significant action.

In March last year I welcomed the commitment from Justice Minister Lord McNally to publish a strategy on women in the criminal justice system. Nearly a year on we are still waiting for this strategy to be published - although we are assured it is coming.

And in September I welcomed the appointment of Helen Grant MP to the Ministry of Justice as Minister with particular responsibility for women – although she will need the necessary support from her Ministerial colleagues and officials if progress is to be made.

I am concerned that women are barely mentioned in the recently published ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ consultation document, which outlines plans to open the majority of probation services to competition, and am worried about the potential implications for women of rolling out payment by results in our criminal justice system.  If the Corston report taught us anything it is that women who offend or are at risk of offending have needs that are distinct from men and an effective response to their behaviour must be gender specific.

Looking forward

I am confident that the Justice Select Committee’s inquiry will shine a light on the problems that still blight our response to women in our criminal justice system. I just hope that Ministers and officials at the Ministry of Justice will begin to give this issue the time and attention it deserves. They should start by dusting off Baroness Corston’s report.  

About the author

Appointed in 1986 as chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook has been responsible for research programmes and campaigns to raise public concern about suicides in prison, the over-use of custody, poor conditions in prison, young people in trouble, and mothers in prison. She was awarded an OBE for services to youth justice in the 2010 New Year Honours List. She was appointed a Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics in 2010.