On 10th December, 2012 Clinks and partners hosted a national event entitled Breaking the cycle of women’s offending: where next? The event was chaired by Dame Anne Owers with keynote speakers including Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and Professor Michele Burman. Attended by over 125 delegates from both the voluntary and community sector (VCS) and statutory sector, discussions during the event focused on what the future should look like for women and girls at risk of offending and how real change can be achieved. To view a storify of the day, click here and see photos from the conference here.
Helena Kennedy contended that debates about women in prison are well versed and now is the time for action. Although there have been some improvements for women caught up in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) since the publication of her book ‘Eve was framed’ twenty years ago, not enough progress has been made. She argued that treating women and men equally within the CJS fails to take into account the distinct needs of women. Helena Kennedy also outlined that the female prison population in England and Wales has trebled in the last two decades and is rising at a faster rate than male imprisonment.
A similar trend has occurred in Scotland, with Michele Burman outlining that since 2000, the average daily women’s prison population has risen by 106%, compared to a rise of 25% for men. Whilst researching the factors leading to this rise, Michele Burman concluded that there was ‘no evidence that women are committing more serious offences’ and that ‘courts are increasingly likely to imprison women for a range of offences and for a longer sentence length.’ Michele Burman’s very informative PowerPoint presentation can be viewed here.
During the event, delegates followed ‘Charlotte’s’ journey into the CJS, brought to life though three realistic and very sobering performances by Clean Break. Although Charlotte is a fictional character, her story is typical of many young girls and women at risk of offending. After each performance, delegates discussed the services and support that could have intervened to alter Charlotte’s narrative-but did not. Clinks are currently writing a report to be published soon, collating the key themes and recommendations made during these discussions and the conference as a whole.
The first performance saw Charlotte at fifteen years old. She was getting into trouble at school and expected to leave with no qualifications. She had spent much of her childhood in and out of care, her mum was using drugs and Charlotte has turned to a potentially negative peer group for support. Delegates felt that early intervention is critically important. Girls at risk of offending should receive consistent, gender specific support. Roles were suggested for Schools, social workers and peer mentors. Many felt that forming a trusting relationship with a peer mentor could prevent young girls from offending as this could ‘broaden their horizons,’ increase their self-confidence and inspire them to achieve their goals.
The second performance depicted Charlotte after she had committed her first offence. She was waiting for her trial and had been advised by her Solicitor that she was likely to go prison. What was worrying Charlotte even more however, was that she was pregnant with her first child. Subsequent discussions highlighted the need for an effective and thorough pre-sentence report to ensure young women in this position receive the most appropriate court disposal. All attempts should be made to divert young girls away from prison. Delegates also stated that community sentences need to be ‘better and more meaningful’ as well as tailored to meet women’s needs. It was also highlighted that it is imperative to listen to what type of support individual women want and to focus upon empowerment.
The last time we saw Charlotte, she had been in and out of prison multiple times, lost custody of her first child and was pregnant again. During the discussion, delegates stated that whilst in custody, women should receive holistic support to enable them to address their needs and help to prevent future offending. This support should continue upon release from prison with services in the community working in partnership with those delivered in prisons. Also, pre-release support should begin as early as possible to ensure that plans for resettlement are in place to enable women to integrate successfully back into the community.
Many advocated for reform of the women’s prison estate and for small, local custodial units to house the minority of women for whom a custodial sentence is necessary. These units could provide more intensive rehabilitative support. However, some voiced concern that such units could provide perverse incentives for sentencers to pass more custodial sentences. This is an example of where outcomes depend on carefully crafted implementation.
The conference closed with a panel discussion between Jackie Russell from Women’s Breakout, Peter Kilgarriff representing the Corston Independent Funders Coalition and Jenny Earle from the Prison Reform Trust. Speakers discussed their vision for the future of women’s services. It was argued that there is an urgent need to develop a consistent narrative focused on the group of women whom Baroness Corston identified as ‘at risk of offending’; we might call them women and girls with multiple and complex problems in the community. They highlighted that this agenda cannot be delivered upon by the Ministry of Justice alone and called for a multiagency response, led by high level inter-departmental collaboration that focuses on early intervention.
Clinks are currently feeding into the Justice Committee’s inquiry into women offenders and as mentioned earlier, we will be producing a report collating all of the issues raised during the conference.
Now for some questions:
What do you think should be done to stem the flow of girls and women into the Criminal Justice System?
What are your views on creating small custodial units for women offenders as an alternative to holding them in prison?
The MoJ’s recent Transforming Rehabilitation consultation proposes that responsibility for female offenders in the community (except those who pose a high risk of serious harm to the public) will be nationally commissioned and delivered using a PbR approach. What is your response to this proposal?