Locking up women poor value for money

rows of cell windows from the outside

A radical new approach to how women in the criminal justice system are treated could save millions of pounds every year and be more effective at cutting crime, according to interim findings in a nef (the new economics foundation) briefing paper submitted to ministers by nef and the Prison Reform Trust on 3 December 2010.

The findings were published just days before the government is expected to publish its long-awaited response to Baroness Corston’s review on the issue.  

The briefing, Measuring What Matters – women in the criminal justice system, argues that the government must not ignore the real and long term impact of its policies on women offenders, their children and wider society and provides early indicators for ‘value for money’ evidence in support of Baroness Corston’s call for an end to the routine use of custodial sentences for women offenders who pose no risk to the public. 

Early results from nef’s economic modelling illustrate the potential for significant lifetime cost savings and crime reduction if the government establishes a network of support and supervision centres helping women offenders address the root causes of their offending. Based on existing successful projects, these non-custodial, intensive interventions in the community would provide access to a wide range of services, including referral for mental health treatment, help with drug and alcohol misuse and advice on debt.

Initial findings to measure what matters for women and sentencing reveal that, for 2,000 women sentenced to prison in the UK for non-violent offences in 2005:

• Sentencing those women to prison is likely to incur lifetime costs of £101.8 million, compared to £82.5 million if early non-custodial community-based interventions are used.

• Including the value of crimes prevented, this means that the lifetime cost saving of early intervention with focused support for 2,000 non-violent women offenders sentenced to prison in the UK in 2005 would come to an estimated £19.5 million, or around £10,000 per female offender. 

• Of this £19.5 million, £18.4 million represents the cost of prison places avoided as support-focused interventions lower the number of reconvictions among women offenders.

• A further £1.08 million in savings arises from avoiding the costs of further crimes and care for the children of women offenders.

If the impact on the life chances of the children of non-violent women offenders is taken into account, the cost of prison is even higher.  These costs include the consequences of family disruption on children’s education, employment prospects, behavioural concerns, substance misuse and their own criminality.  More detail on this aspect of the research will be released when the final findings are published in 2008.

On the basis of the analysis to date, nef recommends:

• The government should implement the Corston review’s recommendation for a network of support and supervision centres. These are likely to offer significant cost savings and be more effective at cutting crime than using prison. 

• Judges and magistrates should make greater use of intensive community sentences. 

• Criminal justice decision-making and budgeting need to take a long-term view to ensure long-term outcomes for women, their families and communities are measured, valued and adequately included in policy-making.

The nef briefing follows the publication of a report by SmartJustice (Prison Reform Trust's campaign for alternatives to custody) showing overwhelming public support for a fundamental change in how most women who offend are treated. The ICM poll, commissioned by SmartJustice, revealed that most people support alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders. 86% of 1,000 people polled were in favour of local centres for women where they could break addictions, receive mental health treatment, gain skills and get out of debt.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

These important findings highlight the price we pay for failing vulnerable women at risk of offending. Women's prisons are not full of serious and violent offenders, instead they are being used as stopgap, cut-price providers of drug detox, mental health assessment and shelter – a dumping ground for those failed by public services.

This answer is not beyond us. Across the UK already there are a handful of support and supervision centres working intensively with women offenders in the community. Unlike prison, which tends to diminish responsibility and increase dependence, they succeed in enabling vulnerable women to take responsibility for their lives.

This nef briefing shows that the Corston review offers a blueprint for a system that protects public safety by making women less likely to reoffend and protects public money by concentrating on what will work in the long term to break the dreary cycle of crime.

Pauline Ngan, nef researcher and author of the briefing said:

The treatment of non-violent women offenders is just one example of how government failure to measure the social returns on its investments is counter-productive.

We already know that for the majority of non-violent women offenders prison sentences simply don’t work. We also already know that community-based support that addresses the causes of criminal behaviour works, and equips women to shape a positive future for themselves and their children. Now, our research shows that it is also more cost effective.

Ignoring the recommendations of the Corston review would not only be a wasted opportunity – it would be costly in the long run, for society and for the public purse.