A year after the publication of the government’s Female Offender Strategy, the Prison Reform Trust, in partnership with NHS England and NHS Improvement and the Centre for Mental Health, are bringing together allied organisations to support the delivery of better outcomes for women in trouble with the law.

The event, held at The Supreme Court today (4 September), will host a keynote speech from Lucy Frazer QC MP, Minister of State for Prisons and Probation, and bring together practitioners, politicians and policy makers from health, social care and criminal justice fields, alongside women with lived experience of the justice system. London’s Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, Sophie Linden, will also address the event.

Working closely with national and local governments, statutory agencies, and voluntary and community sector organisations, the Prison Reform Trust’s UK-wide programme, Transforming Lives has, over the last four years, successfully advocated for early intervention and more effective responses for women, recognising the high level of unmet health and social care needs that many women in contact with criminal justice services experience.

Made possible by The National Lottery Community Fund, the UK’s largest funder of community activity in the UK, the Transforming Lives programme has identified and encouraged the spread of good practice when working with women in contact with the criminal justice system, gathered and disseminated evidence, and ensured that the voices of often-marginalised women are heard.

The programme has played a significant role in advocating for the development, publication and implementation of the government’s Female Offender Strategy in England and Wales—as well as supporting progress in Scotland and Northern Ireland—to deliver more appropriate support to women, which reflect the different drivers to women’s offending.

Women are more likely to be in custody for non-violent offences, and as a result many serve short spells behind bars which do little to tackle the causes of their offending. They are also often victims of crimes much more serious than those they have been convicted of, and have higher levels of mental health needs and histories of abuse. But community options, which government research shows lead to better outcomes, are both underused and under resourced.

Recent government efforts, as advocated by the Prison Reform Trust, to increase the use of community disposals and get women into the treatment and support they need, are welcome. Community Sentence Treatment Requirements (CSTRs), which aim to provide mental health, drug and alcohol support to people in the community are typically used very infrequently—with mental health treatment requirement (MHTR) accounting for fewer than 1% of all Community Orders and Suspended Sentence Orders in 2018.

Women specific pilots in Northampton and Bedfordshire have shown signs of progress, with more women getting access to the treatment and support they need. In Northampton, courts sentenced over 200 women to CSTRs in the first year, and had higher rates of compliance than the national average.

Wales and London are taking the initiative, having developed their own blueprints to provide more effective responses to women’s offending in their local areas.

The introduction of women specific leads in local liaison and diversion services, which place clinical staff in police stations and courts to assess and refer vulnerable people into treatment, is also encouraging, with services now operating across most of England.

As the Transforming Lives programme approaches its fifth and final year, a key priority will be to embed the progress which we have started to see in criminal justice responses to women.

Jenny Earle, Director of the Prison Reform Trust’s Transforming Lives Programme to Reduce Women’s Imprisonment said:

“In the last year we’ve seen major breakthroughs in criminal justice policy for women in all UK jurisdictions, and new initiatives in many local areas. The publication of the government’s Female Offender Strategy; the Welsh government’s Blueprint to reduce women’s offending; the extension of the presumption against short prison sentences in Scotland; and a new strategy to support women in contact with the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland.

“The evidence is overwhelming that most of the solutions to women’s offending lie in the community. What is needed now is continued political commitment to implement the policies and invest in the community-based women’s support services. These are more effective than short prison sentences and come at less cost to women and their families as well as the public purse.”

Minister Lucy Frazer QC MP, who has responsibility for Female Offenders, said:

“Prison can sometimes lead low-risk vulnerable offenders into further re-offending and our Female Offender Strategy has an ambition for more women to be managed in the community. To do that successfully it is crucial we do everything we can to help women access the right support at the right time to address the underlying causes of their offending.

“That is why we have invested £5m over the last two years in community services for women, including those providing employment opportunities, counselling and support for domestic abuse victims.”

Sophie Linden, Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime, said:

"I am pleased to speak at this conference and grateful to the Prison Reform Trust for bringing together so many important partners. The Mayor and I are clear that it is vitally important to reduce reoffending and that is why we have worked hard to develop a new London Blueprint, to take a systematic approach to addressing female offending.

“We know there is a close link between women being victims and perpetrators of crime, with over half the women in prison reporting having suffered domestic violence and one in three has experienced sexual abuse. So we want to do everything possible to break that cycle and help women turn their lives around. Events like this are a vital way of helping to achieve that aim.”

Kate Davies CBE, Director of Health and Justice at NHS England and NHS Improvement, and speaker at today’s event said:

“As commissioners of healthcare across the criminal justice system in England, NHS England and NHS Improvement are working together with the Ministry of Justice to improve the care and support for women in secure and detained settings. This work continues at pace and over the next five years will see the roll out of women specific pathways of care for Mental Health Treatment Requirements, as well as increased early interventions for women within NHS Liaison and Diversion services in police custody and courts. This is in addition to rolling out enhanced perinatal mental health maternity care across ten women’s prisons in England and supporting women to have ongoing contact with their children and engage in their health and care during periods of absence.”

Joe Ferns, UK Funding Director at The National Lottery Community Fund, said:

“The Prison Reform Trust’s work is vital to improving the lives of women across the UK. The Transforming Lives programme, made possible thanks to National Lottery funding, puts women who have been in contact with the criminal justice system at the heart of their work, ensuring their voices are heard in order to deliver real, effective change. We’re proud that The National Lottery Community Fund has enabled the programme to grow from strength to strength.”

Photo credit: UK Parliament, licenced under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)