Women convicted of crime

A summary of evidence relating to risk factors for criminal behaviour in women and how services can reduce reoffending by women and keep women convicted of crime safe.

Do women and men have different risk factors for criminal behaviour that demand different interventions?

Do rehabilitative services for women in prison or on probation need to be different to those for men?

A recent study examined the nature of the most prevalent and most predictive risk factors for reoffending. Based on risk and need assessments of nearly 15,000 women and over 95,000 men on community sentences or leaving prison the study found that:

The most prevalent criminogenic needs for women were:

  • poor problem-solving
  • impulsivity
  • unemployment

These were also the most prevalent needs for men.

The prevalence of other needs varied to some extent by gender, but also by risk of proven reoffending and offence type. For example, 74% of higher-risk women compared with 54% of higher-risk men with a current conviction for acquisitive crime had a Class A drug problem. This gender difference is not evident with those at lower risk of reconviction.

The most prevalent needs were not always the most predictive of reoffending. Five needs emerged as the strongest dynamic predictors of any reoffending for women:

  • unemployment
  • binge drinking
  • impulsivity
  • regular activities encourage offending
  • class A drug use

Most needs influenced reoffending to a similar degree for men and women. Class A drug use and binge drinking were more strongly linked to reoffending for women than for men. But these were also a risk factor for men.

The strongest dynamic predictors of violent reoffending for women were:

  • lack of accommodation
  • temper control
  • being the victim of domestic violence
  • chronic drinking
  • lack of closeness with family
  • binge drinking

There were significant gender differences in the extent to which binge drinking, lack of closeness with family, and poor temper control predicted violent reoffending. These were all more influential for women than for men.

This study shows that that no risk factor is a significant predictor of reoffending for just one gender. However, for some issues the link with offending will be a little stronger for men or for women. The importance of binge drinking as a major predictor of women’s reoffending is a new finding.

What can we do to help reduce reoffending by women and to keep women who commit crime safe?

The best available evidence suggests gender and trauma informed interventions that address risk factors for reoffending, are most effective in reducing women’s reoffending.

What are the priority needs and what is effective?

Substance misuse (Particularly Class A drug use and binge drinking):

  • cognitive-behavioural programmes, (particularly prison-based, focussing on skills development and community through care)
  • therapeutic communities
  • opioid maintenance in the community

Mental health:

  • advocacy
  • social support
  • mentoring
  • trauma-focussed cognitive-behavioural programmes
  • short-term trauma-focussed counselling.
  • personality disorder services

Building skills in managing emotions:

  • cognitive skills programmes
  • mindfulness
  • dialectical behaviour therapy.

Developing and maintaining a pro-social identity:

  • enabling women to do good for their community or for others
  • helping women change the way they describe themselves

Helping people to believe in their ability to be in control and achieve goals:

  • building people’s ability to be self-sufficient
  • building skills in goal setting

Improving family contact:

  • helping to build women’s skills to develop closer, healthier family relationships
  • helping women to secure family support.

Helping to resettle from prison and to build social capital:

  • helping women to get skills to explore and use services
  • helping women to access safe and secure accommodation
  • meeting educational needs
  • securing appropriate and meaningful employment
  • helping women become financially independent

What is not effective?

Substance misuse:

  • education on the effects of substance misuse without building life and coping skills
  • use of ‘scare tactics’

Mental health:

  • only signposting to other services

Building skills in managing emotions

  • long-term, non-specific counselling

Developing and maintaining a pro-social identity:

  • increasing awareness of the effects of crime on others without building a stronger, healthier identity
  • services experienced as punitive

Helping people to believe in their ability to be in control and achieve goals/;

  • focusing only on building self-esteem, particularly around external characteristics, such as attractiveness.

Improving family contact:

  • only facilitating contact, without also focussing on improving the quality of relationships. Helping to resettle from prison and build social capital
  • only signposting to other services without developing skills to sustain involvement in resettlement activities

Dynamic predictors of reconviction for women (HMPPS Analytical Summary 2018). Explores the links between the risk and need profile of women on the prison and probation caseload and their later reoffending.

Better Outcomes for Women Offenders (HMPPS 2015) Summarises the needs of women who have committed crime. Provides guidance how to better design, target and sequence services to improve outcomes for women.

Female Offender Strategy for women in the criminal justice system Ministry of Justice (2018)

Police guidance on working with vulnerable women Ministry of Justice (2018)

A whole system approach for female offenders Emerging evidence Ministry of Justice (2018)

A guide to working with Former Sex Workers and Victims of Domestic Abuse (HMPPS 2015) Summarises evidence on what works to help manage the effects of sex work and domestic abuse, as well and practical and policy guidance.

Published 15 May 2019