Too many women in the UK are still being sent to prison instead of receiving community sanctions and targeted support to address the causes of their offending, according to a leading women’s voluntary organisation.

The women’s prison population doubled between 1995 and 2010. Most women in prison serve short prison sentences for non-violent offences and many have themselves been victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. In 2011 the Soroptimist UK Programme Action Committee resolved to work with the Prison Reform Trust to reduce women’s imprisonment.

Now a wealth of information gathered by 139 Soroptimists clubs across the UK has been distilled into a report that is intended to spur national and local governments into action. The report recommends the development in England and Wales of a cross-government strategy for women’s justice, led by the Minister for Female Offenders. Recommendations for improvements to the oversight of women’s justice in Scotland and Northern Ireland are also highlighted.

The report will be presented to the Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP, the Justice Minister with responsibility for female offenders in England and Wales, at a meeting of the Advisory Board on Female Offenders on Tuesday 16 December.

The report paints a mixed picture of the criminal justice system’s response to women. It profiles some excellent local initiatives whilst mapping overall patchy provision of services for vulnerable women. Soroptimists were particularly concerned by the large number of women in prison who are mothers, and found little evidence that criminal justice agencies made adjustments to accommodate women with dependents (such as childcare provision or interventions scheduled around nursery or school hours).

The report paints a mixed picture of the criminal justice system’s response to women. It profiles some excellent local initiatives whilst mapping overall patchy provision of services for vulnerable women. 

Findings include:

  • There are no women-only centres in North Devon, Somerset or Dorset.
  • There are no specialist residential facilities for women in Avon and Somerset, with Elizabeth Fry in Reading the nearest approved premises for women from these areas.
  • There are no approved premises for women in Wales.
  • There are no women’s centres in Warwickshire, although probation operates a women-specific outreach service.

The report’s key findings include a need for sustained political leadership, the importance of stable funding for women’s community services, the scope for more effective information sharing, and the opportunity to share learning about “what works” across the UK. Differences in approach between England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are identified whilst a number of common UK-wide themes are highlighted.

Soroptimists have already played a key role in achieving change in England and Wales by lobbying for a statutory foothold for women-specific provision in the criminal justice system. Section 10 of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 requires that women’s needs must be identified and addressed in arrangements for the supervision and rehabilitation of offenders. This is a breakthrough, and will help in holding the Westminster government to account and putting an end to the marginalisation of women’s needs.     

Despite commitments to reforming women’s justice voiced by politicians of every stripe, a striking degree of political consensus on the effectiveness of women-specific responses to offending and a sound social and economic case for reducing the women’s prison population, progress has been slow.

The recommendations in the report were developed by the Prison Reform Trust to reflect the evidence gathered by Soroptimists. They include improved training, protocols and guidance for those working in criminal justice agencies to ensure appropriate responses to women offenders, greater regard to the needs of children, piloting of problem-solving courts for women, the production of directories of local women’s services for use by probation and court services, and a roll-out of co-ordinated local multi-agency interventions. 

Commenting, Dr Kay Richmond, who chairs the Soroptimist International UK Programme Action Committee, said:

“Ending violence against women has been at the core of Soroptimist project work for many years and as violent and coercive relationships are so often a driver to women’s offending we welcomed this opportunity to provide a voice for women who are very often victims themselves. I am delighted that Soroptimist Clubs in the UK have contributed to this report. We value this partnership with the Prison Reform Trust and hope our report will inspire the changes necessary to provide more community-based solutions to women’s minor offending.”

Richard Monkhouse, Chair of the Magistrates’ Association, said:

The Magistrates’ Association commends the Soroptimists for gathering such useful information about effective work with women who offend. Women are in the minority of those who appear before our courts and information about preventative work and positive outcomes from community sentences is of particular interest to our Members.”

Juliet Lyon, Director, Prison Reform Trust, said:

“Very few women in prison have committed serious or violent crimes. Without any risk to the public, the women’s prison population could be reduced by at least half. Through concerted action and sustained leadership, the number of young people aged under 18 entering prison has successfully reduced by 60% in the last few years. This detailed report by the Soroptimists provides the information and inspiration needed to reform women’s justice across the UK.”

Clare Jones, National Lead for WomenCentre Halifax welcomed the report saying:

“Localised women specific services have a vital role to play in keeping more women out of prison through use of community alternatives which will benefit women, children and families and will reduce crime in communities.”

Joy Doal, Chief Executive of Anawim Women’s Centre in Birmingham which has shown itself to be very effective in reducing women’s reoffending commented:

"We know and have all the evidence needed that Women's centres work in helping women turn their lives around. What is lacking is sufficient support and coordinated funding. Policy and action need to be joined up. The report highlights the areas with no women’s centres but even those that do have them such as Birmingham, where we are, can only scratch the surface. We could do so much more given adequate resources. Please Simon Hughes bring some direction into this area of work, when women turn away from crime the impact is immense not just on them but their children, families & society at large."