An analysis of the government’s Female Offender Strategy published today by the Prison Reform Trust shows the government has fully implemented only 31 of 65 commitments. The majority of the promises made in the strategy remain unachieved or partially achieved nearly three years after the strategy was published in June 2018.

The recent announcement of 500 new prison places in the women’s estate reverses a key aim of the strategy to reduce the women’s prison population. New places would not be needed if the strategy had been implemented successfully.

One consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a significant decrease in the women’s prison population. This is largely a result of a decline in the number of criminal trials owing to public health restrictions. However, as lockdown eases, and if nothing is done to prevent it, this trend is expected to reverse. The latest prison population projections published by the Ministry of Justice show that the number of women in prison in England and Wales is predicted to rise from just over 3,000 today to 4,500 by September 2026.

 

 

The government has not made available a detailed document tracking the implementation of commitments in the Female Offenders Strategy, most of which are vaguely worded and unclear. An ‘implementation matrix’ compiled by PRT, based on the most up to date information available, shows that of 65 commitments in the strategy, 31 have been fully achieved, 20 partially achieved, and there has been no progress or measurable implementation of 14.

The strategy was published on 27 June 2018. Its three priorities are: 1) earlier intervention; 2) an emphasis on community-based solutions; and 3) an aim to make custody as effective and decent as possible for those women who do have to be there. Its explicit objective to ‘reduce female prison places’ was widely endorsed by the criminal justice sector at the time. However, concerns were raised by stakeholders over the lack of resources to deliver change, and the absence of a timetable to drive it.

One welcome development linked to the strategy has been the introduction of a protocol to increase the use of Community Sentence Treatment Requirements (CSTRs) in England, as an effective alternative to custody which better deals with the multiple and complex issues around women’s offending.

However, PRT’s analysis of the implementation of the strategy reveals:

  1. Even where commitments have been met through publication of guidance or instructions there is little or no information on whether it is having the desired impact. The strategy is not backed up by clear and comprehensive measures of success.
  1. Little progress in implementing promises in the strategy to address the particular challenges faced by black and minority ethnic women. The Ministerial Advisory Board on Female Offenders has no representatives from organisation advocating for black and minority ethnic women. User centred research has now been completed, but findings must be swiftly translated into action.
  1. More attention should be given to developing a safe, trauma informed environment for women in prison. Self-harm levels are worryingly high and continue to rise. Peer led ‘healing trauma’ training has been suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic but should be prioritised when regimes allow, ensuring delivery in all women’s prisons.
  1. Continued attention must also be given to the cross-departmental ‘Concordat on women in or at risk of contact with the Criminal Justice System’. The document was published earlier this year, more than two years after it was originally promised in the strategy and alongside the contradictory announcement of new women’s prisons places. No funding was attached to the implementation of cross departmental working to establish more Whole System Approaches, and the document commits only to a ‘one-year on’ review.

Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“There is little point having a good plan if you don’t deliver it. That requires a timetable, resources and measures of success. None of these are in place. Instead, the government seems to have abandoned the idea that its female offender strategy can deliver its explicit and most important outcome – a reduction in the imprisonment of women. It is prepared to find £150m for new prison places to meet the cost of policy failure, but only a pittance to secure its success.

"The large majority of women are sent to prison for non-violent offences to serve sentences of less than one year. It is time for the government to double down on its aim to send less women to prison by investing in community alternatives and limiting the use of pointless short prison sentences.”

Click here to download a copy of the analysis.