Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report


(iii) Women Offenders

218. A snapshot of the prison population on 30 June 1997, when the overall prison population stood at 61, 467, showed that there were 2,063 imprisoned sentenced females.[258] The Home Office told us that "women remain a small proportion of the prison population but over the last 20 years that proportion has been growing steadily from 3.1% in 1976 to 4.1% in 1996. The rate of increase has been accelerating and by early September 1997 the female population had increased by a fifth over the previous year to reach 4.5% of the total".[259] There has also been a dramatic increase in the numbers of women given community sentences since 1992, as shown below:

Women given community sentences, 1992-96

Community Sentence



Probation orders



Community service orders



Combination orders



219. There appear to be differences in the use of custodial and non-custodial sentences with men and women, although these are not clear cut. Home Office research into the subject concluded that there were "major differences in the use of non-custodial penalties for men and women. Women were consistently more likely than men to be discharged even when their circumstances appeared, on the basis of the available data, entirely comparable. This may stem from the fact that sentencers were reluctant to fine women. Equally, though, it appears that this reluctance may sometimes result in a woman being given a more severe non-custodial penalty. To use probation where a fine would have been appropriate is an ineffective use of resources and...carries the risk that it will lead to an even more severe sentence being imposed in the event of a subsequent conviction. The results concerning the use of custody are less clear cut. Overall, they suggest that while sentencers do not inevitably reject the idea of imposing prison sentences on women, women do not stand an equal chance of imprisonment".[261]

220. As we noted in paragraph 14, Sir David Ramsbotham believed that "only 30 per cent of the women currently in prison actually need to be there".[262] Whether his opinion is correct or not, there is obviously a need to ensure that community sentences are as effective as they possibly can be in their work with women, given that around 15,000 women served them in 1996. Clearly, the points we raise in the this report which are intended to improve the provision of community sentences generally apply to those which are used with women, but there are also further issues which apply specifically to community sentences for women.

221. The need for specific probation options which are focussed on women and which address them in particular was brought to our attention. Mr Richard Barton, a Senior Probation Officer from the South Glamorgan Probation Service, told us on behalf of NAPO that there was a need for programmes specifically for women, that some services were now providing them and that "[s] that...the nature of women's offending is significantly different from the nature of men's offending in that it is much more closely linked to financial matters, emotional needs, those kinds of areas, which indicates that the intervention with women offenders needs to be slightly different and address some of those issues more specifically.... you address those areas for that person or that group of people which are particularly relevant to their offending".[263]

222. The Home Office's memorandum stated that recent small scale research "suggests that women offenders' needs differ from men's on a number of dimensions including finding suitable employment, and coping with past and current experiences as victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse".[264]

223. The Chair of ACOP, Mr John Hicks, told us that the provision of programmes for women was improving, but that "there has been a problem in resource terms because in the development of funding of programmes, we have obviously focussed on the majority who are males and there are not always in any given locality enough of the relatively serious women offenders to constitute a group programme, but area by area they are developing specific programmes for women".[265] The emphasis given to services for men was evident in recent research into probation programmes employing cognitive techniques: it found that only 7 of 123 programmes which collected data on the sex of participants were specifically for women, and that of the further 25 which accepted women the average male:female ratio was 10:1.[266]

224. In spite of the resource difficulties of providing specific programmes for women, Mr Richard Barton told us that Hereford and Worcester Probation Service ran such a programme and that his own probation service, South Glamorgan, was in the process of developing one.[267] We also heard about the women's programme run by Manchester Probation Service when we visited there. This programme "exists to offer the courts a constructive option for women with a serious offence or with a persistent pattern of offending, and who are seen by the courts to be at risk of receiving a sentence of imprisonment...Offenders will be required to attend for 21 sessions, each of two hours duration. These hours are designed to fit with child care responsibilities...[issues explored include] victim awareness, anger management, domestic violence, alcohol, drugs and the effect of abuse. The relapse prevention element included the use of outside specialists for debt counselling, health and employment and training sessions".[268]

225. We recognise the importance of providing alternatives to prison, and probation programmes in particular, which tackle the problems presented by women offenders specifically. We note with concern, again, that limited resources have meant that these programmes have not been as widespread as they should have been. We welcome the fact that this situation appears to be improving and urge the Home Office to monitor and encourage the provision of these services, in order to ensure that a credible alternative to prison is available nationally for women offenders.

258  Appendix 1, figure 2. Back

259  ibid., para 13. Back

260  Probation Statistics England and Wales 1996, Home Office, 1997, p 19. Back

261  Understanding the sentencing of women, Home Office Research Study 170, 1997, p ix. Back

262  Q 587. Back

263  Q 801. Back

264  Appendix 1, para 169. Back

265  Q 124. Back

266  The Influence of Cognitive Approaches: a Survey of Probation Programmes, Home Office Research Study 171 (1997). Back

267  Q 802. Back

268  Probation Programmes: Women's 1A(2) Programme, Greater Manchester Probation Service, pp 2-3. Back

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