Why is progress on female offenders so slow?

Work with offenders on the latest analysis from the Prison Reform Trust

The Prison Reform Trust has published an analysis of the government’s Female Offender Strategy which shows that just 31 of its 65 commitments have been implemented, even though the strategy was published almost three years ago in June 2018.

The charity’s analysis questions whether the recent government announcement of 500 new prison places in the women’s estate would have been needed had the strategy been implemented in full.

Women offenders 

Unfortunately, this lack of progress will be no surprise to those who have taken an interest in women and the criminal justice system over the last 20 years. It was all the way back in 2007 that Baroness Corston published her report on women in the criminal justice system. That report placed an emphasis on system change and services to prevent women being criminalised in the first place. Interestingly, the report received cross-party support and was supposed to be the blueprint going forwards irrespective of which political party was in power.

However, although politicians have continued to endorse the strategy put forward by the Baroness, tangible progress has been much more limited. Back in 2017, the charity Women in Prison marked the 10th anniversary of the Corston report by publishing a comprehensive assessment of the progress (or lack of it) on the 43 recommendations. Women in Prison used a more complex version of the traffic light system to assess progress on implementing the recommendations – in addition to Red, Amber and Green, their analysis included U-Turn, Imminent Problems on the Horizon and Positive developments on the horizon. Women in Prison often used more than one traffic light signal to give an accurate picture of progress which is why the bullet points below add up to 68 and not 43.

  • Some progress was made on 30 recommendations
  • No progress was made on 13 recommendations
  • Imminent problems are foreseen on 9 recommendations
  • Progress has been reversed on 7 recommendations
  • Positive developments are possible on 7 recommendations
  • 2 recommendations have been implemented

The following year, in June 2018, the government finally published its Female Offender Strategy, originally promised in November 2016. The strategy’s three priorities, which were a fit with the Corston report, were:

  1. earlier intervention;
  2. an emphasis on community-based solutions; and
  3. an aim to make custody as effective and decent as possible for those women who do have to be there.

The strategy’s explicit objective to ‘reduce female prison places’ was widely endorsed by the criminal justice sector at the time. However, concerns were raised by stakeholders over the lack of resources to deliver change, and the absence of a timetable to drive it.

PRT analysis 

The Prison Reform Trust has subjected the female offender strategy to a similar sort of comprehensive assessment to the one that Women in Prison applied to the lack of progress on the Corston report.

PRT’s analysis revealed four main issues:

  1. Even where commitments have been met through publication of guidance or instructions there is little or no information on whether it is having the desired impact. The strategy is not backed up by clear and comprehensive measures of success.
  2. Little progress in implementing promises in the strategy to address the particular challenges faced by black and minority ethnic women. The Ministerial Advisory Board on Female Offenders has no representatives from organisations advocating for black and minority ethnic women. User centred research has now been completed, but findings must be swiftly translated into action.
  3. More attention should be given to developing a safe, trauma informed environment for women in prison. Self-harm levels are worryingly high and continue to rise. Peer led ‘healing trauma’ training has been suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic but should be prioritised when regimes allow, ensuring delivery in all women’s prisons.
  4. Continued attention must also be given to the cross-departmental ‘Concordat on women in or at risk of contact with the Criminal Justice System’. The document was published earlier this year, more than two years after it was originally promised in the strategy and alongside the contradictory announcement of new women’s prisons places. No funding was attached to the implementation of cross departmental working to establish more Whole System Approaches, and the document commits only to a ‘one-year on’ review.

The charity makes the point that the large majority of women are sent to prison for non-violent offences to serve sentences of less than one year. It calls on the government to double down on its aim to send less women to prison by investing in community alternatives and limiting the use of “pointless short prison sentences”.

Readers who are interested in seeing the detail of PRT’s analysis of the Female Offenders Strategy can see the matrix analysing each of the 65 commitments here.