Today, I am launching the Government’s female offender strategy following our commitment in the November 2016 “Prison Safety and Reform” White Paper.
If we are to make any significant difference for victims, families and wider society, we must break the cycle of reoffending by taking the necessary steps to understand and address the underlying causes of offending.
The evidence tells us that vulnerability is not just a consequence of crime, it is also a driver of offending behaviour, preventing many from breaking out of a cycle of reoffending.
There is also growing evidence that short custodial sentences do not work in terms of rehabilitation and reducing reoffending. Short sentences generate churn which is a major driver of instability in our prisons and they do not provide sufficient time for rehabilitative activity, especially when we also know that many of these offenders have complex needs and vulnerabilities. In most cases, we know that the best way to meet those needs is to help people get access to the services they need in the community.
Female offenders can be among the most vulnerable of all, in both the prevalence and complexity of their needs. Many experience chaotic lifestyles involving substance misuse, mental health problems, homelessness and offending behaviour, which are often the product of a life of abuse and trauma. Of those female offenders who are in custody, many are sentenced for nonviolent, low-level but persistent offences, often for short periods of time.
If we take the right approach to female offenders—one that addresses vulnerability, follows the evidence about what works in supporting them to turn their lives around, and treats them as individuals of value—it could have substantial benefits for victims, families, and offenders themselves.
This strategy sets out the Government’s commitment to a new programme of work for female offenders, driven by our vision to see:
fewer women coming into the criminal justice system
fewer women in custody, especially on short-term sentences, and a greater proportion of women managed in the community successfully; and
better conditions for those in custody.
To achieve this, we are shifting our focus from custody to the community. Across Government, we are investing £5 million funding over two years in community provision for women. We are committing to working with partners to assess options for delivering a “residential women’s centres” pilot in at least five sites across England and Wales. We want to build the evidence base about what are effective, sustainable and scalable options in the community for diverting women from entering and re-entering custody on short custodial sentences. We will not be proceeding with plans to build five new community prisons for Women.
Given that a higher proportion of women have dependent children living with them prior to imprisonment, incarceration of women may have a disproportionate impact on families and children and increase the risk of intergenerational offending. That is why we are commissioning Lord Farmer to continue his work on the importance of family ties in improving outcomes for offenders, by conducting a further review into female offenders.
Only through effective partnerships, at both a national and local level, which take a holistic approach to tackling the causes underlying the behaviour of female offenders, can progress really happen. That is why the strategy outlines a framework for taking this forward with partners, one which is locally-led, partnership-focused and evidence-based.
As part of this, we will work across Government and with other national and local partners to develop a national concordat on female offenders, which will set out how services should be working together in partnership to identify and respond to the often multiple and complex needs of women involved in the criminal justice system.
We must ensure we are accountable for the priorities set out in this strategy. Therefore, we will publish an annual update on the progress of the work of the strategy and reform the Advisory Board on Female Offenders to give it a greater role in monitoring the delivery of commitments in this strategy.
The female offender strategy is available in full at: