Women in prison have often been victims of much more serious offences than those of which they have been convicted, a new report published today by the Prison Reform Trust reveals.

Fifty-seven per cent of women in prison report having been victims of domestic violence. More than half (53%) report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child compared to 27% of men.

Because many women fear disclosing abuse, both figures are likely to be an underestimate. The charity Women in Prison report that 79% of the women who use their services have experienced domestic violence and/or sexual abuse.

The report is timely in light of the forthcoming Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill and development of the government’s strategy on women offenders. A draft version of the report was discussed at a high level PRT summit in October, chaired by the Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria Vera Baird and attended by the then-Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, Sarah Newton MP.

Commenting at the time of the summit, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd said: “We recognise that a significant proportion of female offenders have experienced domestic abuse and the important role of the justice system in addressing the complex needs of female offenders. To this end the Government is developing a strategy to improve outcomes for women in the community and custody. We will set out the strategy later this year.”

The report identifies strong links between women’s experience of domestic and sexual abuse and coercive relationships, and their offending. Research has confirmed that women often encounter a culture of disbelief in the criminal justice system about the violence and exploitation to which they may have been exposed.

As a consequence, women can become trapped in a vicious cycle of victimisation and criminal activity. Their situation is often worsened by poverty, substance dependency or poor mental health. Imprisonment compounds their problems and has a severely detrimental impact on any dependent children.

In preparing the report, and in collaboration with User Voice and Advance in England, Llamau in Wales and the 218 Service in Scotland, the Prison Reform Trust talked to women about their experiences of committing offences under pressure from a partner, on behalf of a partner, to protect the partner or themselves in connection with domestic abuse, including coercive and controlling behaviour.

Several women said that they had committed offences on many occasions and over prolonged periods of time in order to support a partner’s drug use, including by shoplifting, by selling drugs and by committing other undisclosed offences. They said they felt trapped in these unhealthy relationships.

The women we spoke to felt that that the police were rarely sympathetic or helpful to them as victims of domestic abuse, and did not demonstrate an understanding of the dynamics of abusive relationships.

Women told us they did not have confidence in the police to identify the primary aggressor and provide protection. A number of women reported that they had been repeatedly arrested by the police in incidents of domestic violence where they had not been the primary aggressor.

Linked with this was the unwillingness of women in many cases to support criminal proceedings against their abuser. As one woman commented in a discussion, “You’re too scared to charge him because you know you’ll get a worse time when he gets out.”

The report recommends that the Home Office and Ministry of Justice should work closely together, and, in consultation with the Welsh government, ensure that the forthcoming women offenders strategy addresses the extent to which domestic and sexual violence and abuse underpin the life experience of many women offenders, and include clear expectations on criminal justice agencies to improve their responses to women.

It calls for the police, prosecuting authorities, probation services and the courts to adopt the practice of appropriate, routine inquiry into women’s histories of domestic and sexual violence at each stage of the criminal justice process to ensure informed decision making and proportionate responses.

The report also highlights the lack of any effective defence for women victims/survivors of domestic abuse whose offences arise from coercion or duress as part of an abusive relationship.

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

“It is time for concerted action to help break the cycle of victimisation and offending that blights the lives of too many women and their children. Our recommendations have been developed in consultation with women who have been personally driven to commit crimes by violent partners, and the services that support them. If implemented we would see both a reduction in the incidence of domestic abuse and fewer women unnecessarily imprisoned.”

Download a copy of the report by clicking here.

The Criminal Bar Association has produced an accompanying briefing on the defences available for women defendants who are victims/survivors of domestic abuse, which you can download by clicking here.