“Healthy, supportive relationships are not just a ‘nice to have’ for every woman in the criminal justice system. They are utterly indispensable if she is to turn away from criminality and contribute positively to society: relationships she can rely on are a ‘must-have’ for her rehabilitation.” – Lord Farmer
Clinks welcomes the publication of the Farmer Review for women, which launches in parliament today. This work follows Lord Farmer’s previous review which emphasised the fundamental importance of family relationships for men in prison. This review is of family ties for women in prison and under probation supervision in the community.
We sat as a member of the expert panel to inform the review and led its call for evidence. We heard from approximately 10% of the female prison population along with their families, the voluntary organisations that support them and academics. We are delighted that the voice of these experts has been able to help shape the focus and recommendations of the review and we are grateful to our members for facilitating this engagement.
Overall the review makes a total of 33 recommendations. This blog highlights six key areas of the report of particular significance to the voluntary sector and the people it supports.
Women’s centres are key but need sustainable investment
Clinks is pleased to see the essential services provided by voluntary organisations, including women centres, strongly recognised in the review. Lord Farmer states “relationships are the bedrock of a women-centred approach and the whole ethos of women’s centres is about building relationships.”
The review also echoes concerns raised by Clinks and our partners about the precarious funding position many women’s centres are in, which impacts their ability to deliver their services and plan strategically for the future. It is therefore welcome that the review recommends that:
“Funding for women’s centres to be made sustainable, with core services paid for by those agencies which refer women (including Police and Crime Commissioners and Probation providers) and those which save money through the interventions they provide, such as health and local authorities.”
As well as local investment from referral agencies, Clinks would have liked to see the Farmer Review make an explicit recommendation outlining the need for sustainable investment from the national government in women-centred services.
An eye to equalities
The review outlines that all its recommendations should be implemented with an ‘eye to equalities’. This is important given the wide range of intersecting identities and protected characteristics possessed by women in contact with the criminal justice system. The review heard expert testimony and evidence from voluntary organisations providing specialist support to women, including those from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, foreign national women and those who are pregnant or serving their sentence on a mother and baby unit. It is therefore disappointing that the review has been unable to provide more detail on the specific needs of these women and how they might be met. Further work to explore this will be needed in the implementation of these recommendations.
Pre-sentence reports are essential
The review recommends that, given the complexity of many women’s lives, and the greater likelihood that they are primary carers, obtaining a written pre-sentence report should be mandatory for all women (and male primary carers) before a custodial sentence is passed (if a recent report is not available). It also suggests that pre-sentence reports need to include accurate information on relationships and the impact of custody on family ties.
This is welcome given the decline in both numbers and quality of pre-sentence reports as highlighted by a recent report from HM Inspectorate of Probation outlining that pre-sentence reports were prepared for people serving short term sentences in less than one in four cases.
Sharing information - the development of a Personal Circumstances File
The review recommends that a personal electronic file, known as a Personal Circumstances File, be developed and that this follows each woman through her journey through the criminal justice system until engagement ends.
This is to address the lack of consistent information collected about the needs of women as they journey through the criminal justice system, including information relating to any dependants, family and other relationships they may have.
This is an ambitious recommendation and will be built on the government’s commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan to the full roll-out of the health and justice digital patient record information system. It is intended that liaison and diversion services and the police would collect information contained in the Personal Circumstances File, which will be used to inform bail decisions, pre-sentence reports and resettlement support including accommodation on release from prison.
It is welcome that the review recognises the role of voluntary organisations supporting women to disclose any personal information, and that the information is only used with their expressed consent. However, it will be important that women are not penalised for failing to disclose any personal information and have the opportunity to disclose whenever they choose to do so.
Local accountability is key
The review outlines that to address multiple disadvantage - including poor mental health, homelessness, drug and alcohol misuse and experiences of domestic abuse - it is not only important for women to receive interventions at the earliest opportunity but there needs to be robust local accountability structures to support this. It points to the current development of the National Concordat of Female Offenders to facilitate this and recommends:
“Local Criminal Justice Boards (or equivalent strategic local groups) to take responsibility for building links and encouraging all services to take a joined-up approach to address the needs of female offenders (and women at risk of offending). Police and Crime Commissioners should take a leadership role in facilitating this collaboration between system partners, in pursuit of an effective, efficient response to local need.”
This will need to be facilitated by the national government if it is to succeed. The review recognises this and makes the welcome recommendation that “the Reducing Reoffending Board (which takes a cross-government approach to reducing reoffending) to have a ministerial lead for and pay regular attention to the specific needs of female offenders.”
The women’s custodial estate provides a space for innovation
The review suggests that the smaller size of the women’s estate provides space for innovation and testing of new approaches that, if successful, could be replicated in the male estate. Lord Farmer explicitly outlines that this should be the case for the use of technology across the estate and Clinks is pleased to see him recommend the prioritisation of the rollout of both virtual visits and in-cell telephony in the women’s estate as well as the more creative use of release on temporary license to support the facilitation of family ties.
Further, it is encouraging that Lord Farmer recognises the current challenges with the women’s custodial estate for facilitating and supporting women to maintain their family ties and makes a bold recommendation that:
“Models of custodial centres in the community to be considered as part of the Ministry of Justice’s longer-term strategy for women whose crime is serious enough to merit a custodial sentence, but who are at low enough risk to retain care of their children.”
Clinks will strongly advocate that if this recommendation is adopted, the model of custodial centres must reflect that outlined in the Corston Report.
Lord Farmer recognises the recommendations made in his review require investment. However, the report states “as the women’s estate is much smaller than the men’s, a relatively modest investment will go a long way.” Clinks looks forward to continuing to engage with Lord Farmer, and the Ministry of Justice through our seat on the Advisory Board for Female Offenders, and on the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service Family Strategy Working Group (FSWG) as this work develops, and will work to engage voluntary sector organisations in the implementation of the recommendations.