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Diverting Women Away from Crime

Volume 502: debated on Monday 14 December 2009

Today I am publishing a report on the Government’s strategy for diverting women away from crime. Prison is the right place for those who are dangerous and serious offenders but only 3 per cent. of the female population fall into that category.

Two years ago I announced our commitment to a fundamental change in how the criminal justice system deals with women. We believe rebalancing our spending from custodial provision to community provision will stop vulnerable women from becoming trapped in a cycle of crime. Women’s offending is a complex problem which creates a burden on society, damage to children and families, and misery for the women themselves.

I am pleased to announce that having put in place an intensive, multi-agency approach, we are starting to make a difference, and I am today announcing a commitment to go further. We will:

Reduce the women’s prison estate by 300 places by March 2011 and 400 places by March 2012 and divert resources from custody to the community to sustain the multi-agency community services we have established through grant funding.

Provide up to £5 million to improve approved premises accommodation for women offenders that are being closely supervised on release from custody, and for women offenders with high levels of need to keep them out of custody.

Make available funding of over £1 million to pilot a new project, from April 2010, to explore the benefits of early intervention for women with multiple needs from their first point of contact with the criminal justice system. Family intervention projects will target this group of women and their dependent children in up to 20 areas in England to provide intensive personalised support in a community setting. Dedicated key-workers will provide intensive support to vulnerable women and their families.

Fund enhanced bail support to provide mentoring and other provision to help over 500 more women settle in accommodation.

We have already made good progress with taking forward our strategy to divert women from crime. It takes time to effect change but we can already see a promising reduction in the number of women in prison and encouraging increase in the use of community orders for women.

These findings show we are moving swiftly towards our aim of a different, coherent and sustainable approach to help prevent vulnerable women from becoming trapped in a cycle of crime.

We have been investing to build the necessary community capacity to ensure that there are effective alternatives to custody for women who might otherwise be remanded into custody or given short prison sentences. Earlier this year I announced £15.6 million of new funding over two years, to invest in the provision of additional services in the community for women offenders, who are not a danger to the public, and women at risk of offending.

This funding has crucially given women offenders and those at risk of offending the engagement with the mainstream services they so often struggle to access. It has also enabled centres to give courts an alternative to short prison sentences by providing additional requirements that can be linked into a productive community sentence that can be more effective in cutting re-offending.

The issues that women and girls face are often multiple, complex and rooted in social exclusion; they commonly include mental health problems, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual and domestic abuse as well as concerns regarding their children’s welfare, poverty and homelessness. By failing to address these needs we let down some of the most socially excluded people within our society today; the need to address these issues could not be clearer.

Through our work we aim to secure access for women to homes, jobs, mainstream health services, support to tackle drug and alcohol misuse and mental health problems, support for them and their children as a socially excluded group and as victims themselves.

Underpinning our strategy is the gender equality duty which is our main lever to ensure delivery of gender specific services. To promote awareness of how the gender equality duty supports a different approach to women offenders; share best practice and publicise the work and knowledge of local services within the community, a series of one day ‘Women in Focus’ stakeholder events have been held across the country, the evaluation of which will be published in early 2010.

The report sets out our progress and plans to consolidate and build on delivery of our strategy, to invest further in community provision, and to make more widespread changes to stop women committing crime and entering the criminal justice system. I have placed copies of the Update Report in the Libraries of both Houses. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

I firmly believe that the approach we have been taking and the further announcements today will help transform for the better the way women offenders are managed. It will also contribute to our wider ambition to prevent women who are at risk of offending from entering the justice system.