Today the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has published its long-awaited Female Offender Strategy, which sets out the government’s commitment to a new programme of work for women in contact with the criminal justice system across England and Wales. Clinks is a member of the Advisory Board for Female Offenders and has been working, alongside our partner organisations in the voluntary sector, to influence and inform the strategy over the past 18 months.
This blog aims to give an overview and summary of some of the key points raised in the strategy, how this is likely to impact Clinks members and where we think more work still needs to be done. We will be publishing a more in depth briefing in the coming weeks which explores these issues in more detail.
In response to the strategy’s publication. Anne Fox, Clinks’ Chief Executive Officer said:
“We warmly welcome the aspirational nature of the strategy and much of its specific commitments. These include reducing the use of imprisonment; improving services in the community; noting the importance of specifically addressing the needs of black, Asian and minority ethnic women; recognising the important role of voluntary organisations in supporting women’s complex needs and commissioning Lord Farmer to review family ties for women which we will support him with”.
“We are, however, concerned that the financial package announced today falls way short of what will be needed to enable voluntary sector services to affect real lasting change for these women and that lack of detail on timings and responsibility will make it hard to track progress and ensure the department can be held to account”.
Recognising the unique needs of women
The strategy is welcome in its recognition of the distinct needs of women in contact with the criminal justice system. It highlights that they often experience complex needs and multiple vulnerabilities. It specifically states that criminalising women can have negative social implications, and can undermine the ability of women to address the issues that have led to their offending. It also outlines that short custodial sentences do not deliver the best results for female offenders. These are issues that voluntary organisations working with women have a long history of campaigning on and it is testament to the work of these Clinks members that we see this so strongly highlighted in the strategy.
The strategy has three priorities:
1. Earlier intervention
2. An emphasis on community-based solutions and
3. Delivering better custody
It sets out a framework for how these priorities will be implemented, setting out an approach that will be locally-led (encouraging local areas across England and Wales to feel empowered to design approaches tailored for the specific needs of women); partnership focused (ensuring join-up across government at a national and local level, including with voluntary organisations); and evidence-based (continuing to develop the evidence base to better understand what works).
1. Earlier intervention
The strategy makes a clear commitment to reducing the number of women coming into contact with the criminal justice system, recognising the benefits this will have for victims, wider society and for the women and their families. The MoJ will achieve this commitment by:
a. Intervening earlier to address vulnerabilities that can lead to offending, by:
i. Funding community provision and domestic abuse services for women.
b. Diverting offenders from the criminal justice system, where it is appropriate to do so, and addressing their needs to prevent reoffending, by:
i. Optimising Liaison & Diversion schemes
ii. Supporting the police to work with vulnerable women
iii. Improving use of Out of Court Disposals
iv: Working with non-police prosecutors
v: Promoting Retail-Based Diversion.
The government has launched a grant funding scheme alongside the strategy, the Female Offender Community Investment Fund.
In total, the department will award £3.5m of funding between 2018-2020 (£2m in 2018-19 and £1.5m 2019-20) for community provision for women who have either offended or are at risk of offending. The grant competition for 2018-19 will close on 29th August. Details can be accessed online here under reference ITT 2020. Funding will be provided to develop provision for women with an experience of domestic abuse, in order to maintain and develop community services for women, and to support local areas to develop and embed whole system approaches for women in contact with the criminal justice system. Due to the overrepresentation of black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) women in the criminal justice system, the department is looking for the funding to be used to specifically address the needs of this cohort, as well as women with other protected characteristics. The government will also invest an additional £1.5m capital funding to support the development of community-based provision for women.
Through both Clinks’ state of the sector and TrackTR research we know women-specific organisations are experiencing significant financial challenges. Although this funding is welcome – and demonstrates the government’s commitment to investing in specialist women’s services - the level of investment will not ensure the ongoing sustainability of these organisations in the long-term. Our preliminary estimate - developed alongside the Prison Reform Trust - of the cost of providing holistic, women-centred services to all women subject to criminal justice supervision is up to £70.7m per annum. This is a significantly higher sum than the investment committed to by government. We will be working to promote the value and financial need of these organisations to support and ensure their sustainability.
2. An emphasis on community-based solutions
The strategy highlights that the government will support a greater proportion of women to successfully serve their sentence in the community and reduce the numbers serving short custodial sentences by:
a. Ensuring that courts have better and more comprehensive information about female offenders to inform sentencing decisions by:
i. Engaging with courts
ii. Improving Pre-Sentence Reports.
Clinks members, through our Track TR research and during meetings of our women’s networking forum, have continually raised issues with pre-sentence reports which do not reflect the distinct needs of women. The MoJ has developed a new pre-sentence report interview checklist which aims to ensure the “right questions are asked” during assessments. It will be rolled out to all probation staff from summer 2018. Alongside this, a report template and a training package for all pre-sentence report writers will ensure that we have a workforce that can assess and respond to the specific needs of female offenders.
However, this will only go some way to addressing these issues. Probation staff are often under time pressure which can prevent them from undertaking full assessments of women’s needs. Many specialist organisations have told us they are often precluded from these assessments due to resource constraints.
b. Developing more options for managing women in the community by:
i. Piloting Residential Women’s Centres
ii. Improving Accommodation Provision
iii. Increasing use of Community Sentence Treatment Requirement
iv: Piloting Electronic Monitoring, including new technologies such as location monitoring.
Accessing secure and appropriate accommodation is a pressing need for many women in contact with the criminal justice system so it is positive that the strategy has placed a strong focus on this. As well as improving access to Approved Premises for women in London and Wales, we would also encourage the department to explore further accommodation arrangements that will allow women to be located or resettled as close to their communities as possible.
Five residential women’s centres will be piloted across England and Wales, which aim to test “an intensive residential support package in the community for women at risk of, or having served, short custodial sentences, supporting them to address the underlying causes of their offending behaviour.” These pilots will be delivered with local partners, including Community Rehabilitation Companies and potential providers. It will be very important to engage with specialist women’s services in the development of these pilots, not just as potential providers, and we look forward to supporting the MoJ to do this as they commence the process of engagement.
c. Providing more support for those offenders managed in the community by:
i. Developing a more gender-informed probation service.
The MoJ will continue to consider improvements they can make to probation services, including building stronger links with women’s centres. This work will involve improving through-the-gate services. The department is looking to develop a “tiered approach to services based on need” rather than risk. Given the complex needs experienced by many women in custody, this approach is likely to be particularly beneficial for women. The National Probation Service (for an initial one-year pilot) will place a dedicated senior probation officer into this role in each National Probation Service region who will act as a dedicated women’s champion, responsible for monitoring and driving up performance, supporting training, problem-solving service issues and implementing gender-informed practices. They will be in post from September 2018. All Community Rehabilitation Companies have an identified women’s strategic lead whom the MoJ will encourage to focus on similar issues.
It is positive to see that the strategy also recognises the unique needs of BAME and foreign national women. The MoJ will be looking closely at what further action can be taken to identify and address needs specific to these groups, working closely with specialist voluntary organisations to improve their capacity to share best practice and form networks through facilitated events and more structured communication of policy developments.
3. Delivering better custody
The MoJ have dropped their commitment to building new community prisons for women which they announced in their Prison Safety and Reform white paper, which is most welcome. Although the focus of the strategy is to divert women from custody, it recognises that this will not lead to a reduction in the prison population in the short-term. The MoJ will aim to create a custodial environment which enables rehabilitation and delivers better outcomes for women.
a. Adapting the custodial environment to meet the needs of female offenders by:
i. Focusing on better links with children and families
ii. Improving Safety
iii. Becoming Trauma-Informed
iv: Improving Health & Wellbeing.
Last year the MoJ launched the final report from the 2017 Lord Farmer Review on the importance of strengthening male prisoners' family ties to prevent reoffending and reduce intergenerational crime. The review was co-chaired by Clinks. The MoJ have asked Lord Farmer to undertake a further piece of work to review his recommendations through the lens of the needs of women in contact with the criminal justice system, given that many women in prison are primary carers of their children. The new work will look more widely at how to strengthen family ties, especially with their children, for women serving sentences in the community and after they have been released, as well as for those women in custody. They will also work towards:
b. Offering comprehensive rehabilitative support by:
i: Empowering the Prison Workforce
ii: Developing Education & Employment.
Clinks will be continuing to work with the MoJ, making the case for sustained investment in specialist, women-centred services. We are also running our women’s networking forum - the next meeting will take place in Bristol in September.