Press release

Secretary of State launches dedicated strategy to 'break the cycle' of female offending

The female offender strategy sets out a commitment to divert the most vulnerable women in the criminal justice system away from custody through the provision of tailored support.

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  • government announces new pilots for 5 residential women’s centres across England and Wales
  • greater focus on innovative community provisions to keep women away from prison
  • the government will not pursue plans to build community prisons for women
  • Lord Farmer will conduct an in-depth review into family ties – around a quarter of female offenders have dependent children

Justice Secretary David Gauke has outlined a new strategy to ‘break the cycle’ of female offending – placing community services at the heart of the government’s response.

The female offender strategy, published today (27 June 2018), sets out a commitment to divert the most vulnerable women in the criminal justice system away from custody through the provision of tailored support – recognising their unique and complex circumstances.

The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has committed to investing in a ‘residential women’s centre’ pilot in at least five sites across England and Wales. Allied to this, and after listening to key stakeholders, MOJ will no longer be pursuing plans to build new community prisons for women.

While public safety remains the top priority and prison will continue to be the only appropriate option for those women who commit more serious crimes, the strategy recognises that female offenders are frequently among the most vulnerable individuals in society. Many face issues with substance misuse and mental health problems – often the product of a life of repeated abuse and trauma and almost 60% of female offenders have experienced domestic abuse.

Evidence shows that women under community supervision and in custody are more than twice as likely to have a mental health issue than men, while almost half (48%) of female prisoners said they committed their offence to support the drug use of someone else - compared with 22% of male prisoners.

That is why the Government is today recognising this unique challenge, by publishing a new dedicated strategy to improve community support for female offenders.

Secretary of State, David Gauke said:

Many of the women serving custodial sentences are extremely vulnerable and have experienced abuse themselves. Evidence clearly shows that putting women into prison can do more harm than good for society, failing to cut the cycle of reoffending and often exacerbating already difficult family circumstances.

While public protection will always be our priority, and prison must remain the only option in the most serious cases, I want that to be a last resort. That’s why today we are announcing a step change in our approach to rehabilitating women offenders – we will shift from prisons to women’s centres which focus on the full range of support services beginning with five pilots across England and Wales.

I want this strategy to be the start of a shift in attitudes to the way we support female offenders with greater emphasis on community provision. This ultimately benefits everyone - offenders, their families and the wider community as we see fewer victims and cut the cost of reoffending.

Christina Marriott, Chief Executive of the Revolving Doors Agency, said:

Revolving Doors Agency welcomes the emphasis in the Female Offenders Strategy on keeping women in their communities. The unambiguous ambition that less women will be sentenced to ineffective and disruptive short sentences is a significant step in reducing reoffending and reducing damage to families. The task now is to make this a reality through local and national investment.

The estimated annual cost of female offending is around £1.7 billion. This new approach places a focus on early intervention, with an emphasis on community-based sentences to address the often complex needs of women who commit crime.

At present, 56% of women will re-offend within the first 12 months of leaving prison. The majority of female offenders are also assessed as low or medium risk, and commit non-violent and low-level offences.

Local areas will have the opportunity to bid for funding grants to be delivered over the next 2 years. Those organisations working with female offenders and women at risk of offending will be supported to design dedicated services that address the specific needs of the women in their communities.

The strategy advocates a ‘Whole System Approach’ (WSA), whereby a range of local agencies are brought together to deliver better outcomes for female offenders. The government has already invested £1 million seed funding for eight areas across the country, which has helped to provide tailored support for the most vulnerable women.

Through the strategy the government is investing an additional £5 million over 2 years on community provision for women so that, where appropriate, women are given the support they need to address their offending. Early intervention is essential in reducing the number of women entering the justice system.

The strategy also sets out our commitment to work with partners to pilot at least 5 ‘residential women’s centres’ across England and Wales. These centres will support female offenders to engage in employment, find secure, stable accommodation and help them ultimately turn their backs on crime for good.

Many women in contact with the criminal justice system have young children and maintaining stable family ties is vital in supporting rehabilitation. Lord Farmer has been commissioned to conduct a further in-depth review into the importance of family ties in improving outcomes for female offenders.

The commitments in this strategy set out the first steps in fundamentally reforming the way the government supports female offenders - shifting the focus away from custody and investing in community services for women to help break the cycle of offending.

Notes to editors

  • The government is investing £5 million over 2 years in community provision for women. As part of this, today we are launching an initial £3.5m grant competition for 2018/19 and 2019/20 for community services and multi-agency, whole system approaches.
  • Lord Farmer’s Review of family ties will look at what measures can be taken to strengthen family ties, especially with their children, whilst serving sentences in the community, custody and on release.
  • An estimated 24-31% of female offenders have dependent children.
  • Over 60% of female offenders have experienced domestic violence.
  • A higher proportion of women in custody are living with their dependent children prior to imprisonment than imprisoned fathers (60% vs.45%).
  • Female prisoners are more than twice as likely as male prisoners to report needing help for mental health problems, 49% and 18% respectively.
  • The reoffending rate for women released from a custodial sentence of fewer than 12 months April-June 2016 was 71%.
  • Evidence shows the imprisonment of mothers has a greater impact on the living arrangements of dependent children than the imprisonment of fathers, and that binge drinking and Class A drug use are risk factors more strongly associated with reoffending for women than they are for men.
  • As of 15 June 2018, the women’s prison population was 3,867, accounting for 4.7% of the prison population. Women have consistently accounted for around 5% of the total prison population since 2007.
  • MOJ will work across government and with other national and local partners to develop a National Concordat on Female Offenders.
  • Guidance has also been published for the police on working with vulnerable women, developed in partnership with the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC).
Published 27 June 2018