Problem-solving courts for women

Work with offenders on the latest briefing from the Centre for Justice Innovation

As readers will know, while there are far fewer women in contact with the criminal justice system than men, the women who are in it have a higher prevalence of needs, including mental health issues, substance misuse issues and previous experience of abuse and trauma. Women also tend to commit less serious offences and those who are imprisoned tend to receive short custodial sentences.

The Government finally published its Female Offender Strategy in 2018 which recognises the distinct needs of women via specialist, gender-responsive approaches, prioritising the use of early intervention and community-based solutions. In 2020, the Ministry of Justice announced its intention to pilot five new problem-solving courts, including one which should specifically focus on the distinct needs of women who offend.

The Centre for Justice Innovation, an acknowledged authority on problem-solving courts, has published a briefing outlining the three critical success factors for a women’s problem-solving court:

  • Target women at risk of custody: Problem-solving courts for women should target individuals at risk of short custodial sentences, and avoid up-tariffing women with lower-level offending but complex needs;
  • Ensure judicial continuity: Having the same judge or bench of magistrates at regular review hearings helps to build rapport and allows them to continually monitor an individual’s progress and engagement;
  • Promote partnership working: Effective collaboration between agencies that facilitates service user engagement is crucial to the success of a women’s problem-solving court, as is the ability to refer women to local women’s centres, where they can receive individualised support packages during their community sentence.

Best practice

The briefing helpfully includes two examples of existing practice.

The Manchester and Salford’s women’s problem-solving court, running since 2014, targets women with additional support needs, such as addiction, mental health issues or unstable housing, who have offended. Needs are identified as part of a pre-sentence assessment process and probation officers can propose a referral to the problem-solving court as part of the woman’s Pre-Sentence Report (PSR). The courts are supported by specialist teams including legal advisors, probation officers and a panel of magistrates. If a woman receives a sentence with a problem-solving approach, she is allocated a keyworker from a local women’s centre and a tailored package of support will be provided to her throughout the sentence. As part of their sentence, women must regularly attend the court for review hearings to monitor progress. The reviews are much more informal than a standard court hearing and the magistrates adopt an asset-based approach, emphasising individual skills and strengths and recognising the importance of building relationships, to encourage the woman to comply with the order, take responsibility for her actions and to engage with agencies that can help her move forward with her life. Although there has not been a formal outcome evaluation, the court has a positive reputation locally.

The Aberdeen problem-solving approach was set up in 2015 to provide an alternative approach for women with complex needs and multiple previous convictions, and was later expanded to include young adult men aged 18-25. The aim of the court is to reduce the use of short-term custody and reduce re-offending by combining the authority of the court with rehabilitative community sentences which includes a personalised package of support to address the underlying causes of offending. Once accepted onto the programme, individuals are given a Structured Deferred Sentence usually for six months but with the possibility of an extension, while they engage with service providers to address their needs. Female service users receive enhanced support from a Criminal Justice Social Worker (the Scottish equivalent of a probation officer) and from a support worker based in a local women’s centre.

As in Manchester, attendance is also required at review hearings at the court every four weeks to discuss their progress in front of a specially-trained dedicated sheriff. An early-stage review of the court, which looked at the first 30 women found some promising signs.

Conclusions 

The Centre for Justice Innovation identifies seven implementation lessons for anyone interested in establishing a problem-solving court for women:

  1. Target women at risk of custody (as mentioned earlier) and avoid up-tariffing women facing fines or low tariff community orders.
  2. Avoid ‘overdosing’: The sentence conditions set by the court need to avoid creating overly burdensome orders that women with multiple needs will find difficult to complete.
  3. Ensure judicial continuity.
  4. Support practice through training: including training for judiciary and court staff to support the use of trauma-informed approaches.
  5. Adopt a non-adversarial approach: Review hearings should be less formal and less adversarial, to encourage the women to engage in the process; collaborative approaches to goal setting will maximise the perceived fairness of the process;
  6. Promote partnership working: Effective collaboration between statutory and voluntary sector organisations within the justice sector and beyond in a multi-agency approach is essential to ensuring that individuals receive appropriate interventions and supervision, as well as access to the necessary community treatment and support services. Robust resourcing is critical.
  7. Operate within a gender-responsive framework: Women’s problem-solving courts work well when they form part of a wider Whole Systems Approach to women’s offending (which operates in Manchester).