MoJ starts delivering on women offenders strategy

Work with offenders heralds long awaited investment in services for women offenders

The announcement by the Ministry of Justice that it is investing in services for women offenders was some very welcome news during a particularly bleak time.

The issue of women’s offending is possibly unique in the criminal justice system. Unique because, unlike so many other justice issues where “liberals” and conservatives” have opposing views, there has been a cross-party consensus for the best part of a generation that the male-oriented and-dominated criminal justice system needs to be modified to meet the very different needs of women offenders.

However, despite this consensus, campaigners have been frustrated that such little progress has been made on the back of the Corston Report published way back in 2007.

The Corston report found that women are an add-on to a male-centric prison system and concluded that we need a “distinct, radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach”.

Over the last decade there has been a general agreement over a number of key issues including the importance of women’s centres to provide women in contact with the criminal justice system, a large proportion of whom have long-standing and complex needs, with the support they need outside of a custodial setting. The publication of the Female Offender Strategy in June 2018 again raised hopes that change would be coming. However, concrete details and real funding have been lacking until today’s announcement.

There were two important components to the announcement: firstly, that £2.5 million will be awarded to community services to divert women away from crime and, secondly, that Wales has been chosen for the government’s first Residential Women’s Centre, an alternative to custody that is focused on rehabilitation for women convicted of low-level crime.

Interestingly, the £2.5 million will be allocated via the new probation dynamic purchasing system with the directors of each region of the National Probation Service involved in assessing bids. No formal criteria for the grants have been published yet and the money will not be available until later in the year but the MoJ states that funding could be used for services focusing on domestic abuse support, drug and alcohol rehabilitation or work with particular groups such as women from ethnic minorities or in a specific age range.

The details about the first Residential Women’s Centre are also somewhat limited at this time. However, it’s clear that the centre will operate as an alternative to custody for women with complex needs. It is intended that the centre will offer services which tackle the underlying causes offending, such as substance misuse and mental health problems, and enable Welsh women to stay closer to home, benefiting their children and helping to preserve wider family ties – issues which are known to be key to reducing reoffending. The centre will also provide support for women as they transition from the centre to their lives back in the community. It is understood that the centre will not be a secure site – with walls and fences – but that there will be a range of restrictions such as curfew times for the women who live there as part of the conditions of what are expected to be community orders.

No timescale has been provided other than the aim of opening the centre by the end of 2021.

It will be interesting to see whether this Residential Centre is the first of many across England and Wales or whether the MoJ will wait to evaluate the effectiveness of the first one before rolling out other sites.