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Local authorities have a crucial role to play in helping women get the support they need to stay out of trouble, according to a joint report by the Prison Reform Trust, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, the Centre for Mental Health, and the Education Policy Institute.

Most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside the justice system in treatment for addictions and mental health problems, support out of violent and abusive relationships, secure housing, money and debt advice, skills for employment, and assistance for families.

Local councils know and understand their communities. Their leadership can provide strategic oversight, and collaboration and coordination with other agencies to deliver necessary support to women in contact with, or on the edges of the criminal justice system. Existing partnerships bring together local organisations that have the means of transforming the lives of women and their families. This approach has the potential to make financial savings for local councils and improve outcomes for women and the wider community.

Many women in the criminal justice system have mental health problems, and almost half of women in prison report having ever attempted suicide. High numbers have experienced emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse as a child, and many report a history of domestic violence. Around 17,000 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment. This has an often devastating impact on the lives of children, who are more likely than their peers to have poor mental health and insecure housing, and a high cost to local services.

While the current context of reduced local authority budgets is challenging, there are opportunities for councils to rethink service provision to ensure vulnerable citizens receive necessary support, and for better coordination of existing arrangements. The Care Act, the Children Act and work with Troubled Families give further momentum for prevention and early support.

One former offender contributing to the report said: “It makes sense, that if you intervene early to prevent problems, you will save down the line—not only financially but in human terms too; and where there are children involved, it’s a no-brainer.”

The report highlights areas where work is already taking place to join up budgets and promote effective joint working between different agencies. Places such as Greater Manchester have called for further devolution of criminal justice powers and a greater role for local government in meeting the needs of local populations.

The Justice and Rehabilitation Executive of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority is overseeing an integrated delivery model for women. It is supported by the Cheshire and Greater Manchester Community Rehabilitation Company, the Public Service Reform Team, and nine women’s centres, located across the ten boroughs of Greater Manchester. Working with women, bringing to bear their unique insights and experience, helps to ensure local services are designed in a way that best meets women’s needs, as well as creating cost savings for local areas.

In Essex, the County Council has procured an ‘all vulnerabilities’ criminal justice care management and navigation service for people with complex and additional needs who are in contact with criminal justice services. Full Circle, provided by Phoenix Futures Group and North Essex Partnership University NHS Trust, works with local liaison and diversion services, the Community Rehabilitation Company, probation and prison services to identify individuals at risk, improve their health and wellbeing, and reduce offending.

Commenting, the Rt Hon Lord Bradley, Trustee of the Prison Reform Trust and the Centre for Mental Health, said:

“Many women in contact with criminal justice services experience domestic violence and have mental health or substance misuse problems. Local councils are uniquely placed to provide leadership to local efforts to prevent women’s offending and to improve their life chances, and those of their families.”

James Bullion, ADASS Care and Justice National Network Lead and Director for Adult Operations, Essex County Council

“Being attentive to the needs of vulnerable citizens is not an optional extra for local councils, it’s fundamental to why we exist. By advocating for women with multiple needs, and working with them to inform service provision, we not only offer women much needed support, but can help break the damaging generational impact of a mother’s contact with criminal justice services, and cycles of disadvantage for children. Councils have an important role to play in working strategically with local and regional partners, helping to identify when support is needed and coordinating responses for women with multiple needs.”

Jenny Earle, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s programme to reduce women’s imprisonment said:

“Areas such as Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Essex are leading the way in showing how effective joined up services for vulnerable women can be delivered at the local level. This report sets out the case for change and suggests practical ways in which local authorities can meet the needs of women at an early stage, reducing costs and the harm caused to victims and communities.”

Click here to download a copy of the report.