Today (26th July), the Justice Select Committee published their long-awaited report following an inquiry into women in prison, which three lived experience members from Revolving Doors’ Women’s Forum fed into. While the specificities of female offending are well-established, progress to prevent women from entering the criminal justice system remains slow, warns the Committee.
Root causes of female offending yet to be addressed
Behind women who are in contact with the criminal justice system, there is frequently a complex history of trauma, abuse and mental-ill health. The fact that a majority of women are sentenced for petty theft or TV licence evasion is additional evidence of the broader socio-economic disparities that lie behind female offending. As a former Revolving Doors lived experience member told the Committee:
There are so many young women and women of my age in the system who are broken. They have been seriously abused and have ended up by going into that spiral and then coming under the criminal justice system. Some of those people have lost their children; they have lost their lives. They did not do anything; they were traumatised or seriously abused by somebody else, which destroyed their life and sent them into the criminal justice system, where a lot of them have just been leftLived experience member, Women’s Forum
It is positive to see the Committee emphasise the importance of trauma-informed practice through all points of contact within the criminal justice system, but we question to what extent a prison can ever be truly trauma-informed, by nature of the deprivation of liberty itself being traumatising.
Too many missed opportunities to divert women into support
The inquiry adds to a recent National Audit Office report, which found that the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) track record on reducing numbers of women in prison through better management of needs in the community, and less custodial sentences – a key objective of its Female Offender Strategy – was far from satisfactory. The Committee’s conclusion that more needs to be done to address the problematic substance use, mental ill health and trauma issues facing women who enter the criminal justice system, comes as no surprise.
Far too many women continue to be let down by a system that won’t address their multiple needs altogether, and end up being criminalised for it. This is echoed by another of our lived experience members in the report:
At the time I was sent to prison part of me was quite relieved that I was taken away from my life at the time. My life was in tatters and I was in a really destructive relationship. I could not stop using substances. I was an intravenous drug user on heroin and crack. I couldn’t stop. My addiction was escalating and that had a really bad impact on my mental health. I have a bipolar diagnosis. I was hallucinating and having psychosis, and I didn’t have secure housing. I think I had a lot of built-up trauma as a result of my addiction. I found myself getting caught up in heavier and heavier crimes, and involved with more and more dangerous peopleLived experience member, Women’s Forum
It is worrying to see that existing non-custodial options which have already proved their effectiveness – such as Liaison & Diversion schemes and Out of Courts Disposals, are not used to their full potential due to under-funding. We welcome the Committee’s recommendation that the MoJ set out what work is being done to ensure that these offer a credible alternative to custody, especially as there is a clear political case for community sentences. We urge the Government to take up the opportunity brought about by the pandemic to re-direct resources to women-specific diversionary pathways.
Numbers indicate a considerable decline in female imprisonment during the pandemic but are likely to go up by a third in the next three years – this does not have to be. If the Government sticks to its commitment to increase the use of community sentences, we can avoid further pressure on the system and create far better outcomes for women. It is imperative that the Government take up the opportunity brought about by the pandemic to re-direct resources to women-specific diversionary pathway.
Worrying decrease in the use of Pre-Sentence Reports
We share the Committee’s concerns over the drastic decline in the use of Pre-Sentence Reports (PSRs) in the last ten years – the value of which is clearly recognised in the report. PSRs can make a marked difference to women’s justice outcomes, as they provide essential information about the defendant’s individual circumstances used by Courts to consider a community sentence. Yet, many of our lived experience members did not receive a PSR, did not know what a PSR was, or found that the information in their PSR was out of date, and the process was clearly rushed.
Without courts being given a full picture of the defendant and the mitigating circumstances surrounding their offending and potential sentence, it can be expected that many more women will be denied community sentences when this would have best suited their needs and reduced their likelihood of reoffending. We can therefore only agree with the Committee that more efforts are needed to investigate and address this decline, including by making PSRs mandatory for all women facing custodial sentences.
Gaps in resettlement
With six out of ten women being released from prison into homelessness, accommodation is one of the most significant and urgent barriers to effective resettlement. We welcome the report’s recognition that appropriate housing is as important as having accommodation itself. Members of our Women’s Forum have spoken about being placed into unsuitable, often unsafe accommodation following their release from prison – which equally fuels reoffending. What is clearly needed from the Government is for appropriate standards of accommodation to be articulated in light of women’s specific needs, and more partnership working between MoJ and other key stakeholders such as the Departments for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities or Health and Social Care.
The report is also right to emphasise how acute this problem is for women on short sentences, who are not in prison long enough to access appropriate support, yet still suffer the resulting disruption to employment, housing and family ties. This, coupled with the lack of meaningful rehabilitative prospects, will often only further entrench offending behaviours. We regret that the Committee did not go further in recommending a presumption against short prison sentences of 12 months or less be introduced, as is the case in Scotland, but Revolving Doors will continue to advocate this.