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Women with learning disabilities are at risk of becoming drawn into the criminal justice system due to failures to recognise their disability and a lack of appropriate support, according to a new report published today by the Prison Reform Trust, produced in collaboration with KeyRing Living Support Networks.

The report, Out of the Shadows, draws on the experiences of 24 women with learning disabilities in contact with, or on the edges of, the criminal justice system; and practitioners working within criminal justice, social care, and women’s services. Abuse by men lay behind the offending behaviour of most of the participating women.

The report gives a voice to women with learning disabilities, enabling them to talk about their experiences. This includes not understanding the implications of their behaviour and failure to comply with imposed sanctions; their histories as victims of violent and abusive behaviour; and enforced separation from their children, bewilderment and a sense of injustice.

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Photo credit: Polly Braden

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A new analysis of court data published today by the Prison Reform Trust has found significant variations in imprisonment rates for women between police force areas in England and Wales.

The average imprisonment rate for women in England is 30 per 100,000, and in Wales 48 per 100,000.

Cleveland has the highest imprisonment rate in England and Wales at 67 women per 100,000 head of population. Between 2012 and 2017 this region saw an increase of 22% in the use of immediate imprisonment for women.

By contrast, Greater Manchester, where there is a co-ordinated strategy involving the local authority, police diversion, a problem solving court and women’s support services, has an imprisonment rate of 25 women per 100,000 head of population. Between 2012 and 2017 it saw a decrease of 33% in the use of immediate imprisonment for women.

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Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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Commenting on the latest Ministry of Justice Safety in Custody Statistics published today (25 April), Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“These numbers show that there is a very long way to go before our prison system is safe for the people who live and work in it. The rise in self-inflicted deaths is especially concerning.

“Everyone will hope that the modest improvement in both self-harm and assault figures in the most recent quarter may be the start of a trend, although it is far too early to say. But it would be a mistake, when a change may have started to happen, to put that at risk. Rolling out the deployment of PAVA spray to all prison officers will undermine the relationships between staff and prisoners on which all aspects of safety ultimately depend.”

Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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Earlier this month the UN Committee on Women (CEDAW) published its latest report on progress in achieving women’s equality in the UK.  The UN Committee welcomed the UK Government’s “first female offender strategy in June 2018 to divert the most vulnerable women in the criminal justice system away from custody through the provision of tailored support in England and Wales.” However, reflecting concerns expressed by Prison Reform Trust and others, the Committee recommended that the UK government allocate sufficient resources to effectively implement the Female Offender Strategy; continue to develop alternative sentencing and custodial strategies, including community interventions and services, for women convicted of minor offences; and take further measures to improve the provision of mental health care in all prisons, taking into account the particular needs of women.

Welcoming the United Nations CEDAW Committee’s conclusions, PRT Transforming Lives programme director Dr Jenny Earle said:

“The government has recognised in its strategy that most of the solutions to women’s offending lie in the community, but so far has failed to adequately fund the women’s services that are key to delivering these.  Now an influential international body has added its voice to the growing clamour for more realistic funding. The time has come for the government to deliver on its commitments, and invest in those services it says it supports.”

Photo credit: Andy Aitchison

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Commenting on the National Audit Office's report on transforming rehabilitation, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“This report shows how many of the problems that have beset the probation service in recent years stem directly from the way the government chose to re-organise the system. The so-called rehabilitation revolution has actually just put more people back into prison with all the damaging consequences David Gauke set out in his speech last week.

“There is a real risk that a hurried re-tendering of those services now will gloss over those fundamental design flaws. The NAO is right to sound a warning bell, just as so many did before the original reform was implemented. As a start, the justice secretary could take the opportunity to reduce the number of people in prison by stopping the recall to custody of people who have not committed a crime that would justify such a sentence in the first place.”

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