Baroness Corston's report A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system made a series of recommendations to bring about improvements in the women's criminal justice system. Now, six years after her report, we found that it is well recognised that women face very different hurdles from men in their journey towards a law abiding life, and that responding appropriately and effectively to the problems that women bring into the criminal justice system requires a distinct approach. Our examination of developments in policy and practice over this period indicates that in the first two years of the Coalition Government there was a hiatus in efforts to make headway on implementing such an approach. We welcome the fact that, after we announced our inquiry, the Secretary of State recognised the importance of these issues, and assigned particular Ministerial responsibility for women offenders. We consider that clear leadership and a high level of support from other Ministers will be essential in restoring lost momentum. The Minister has set out four strategic priorities, which we support, and has created a new Advisory Board to work across Government and with key stakeholders in order to further these priorities. We would like to see these commitments, which appear to have been produced in haste, given greater substance and accompanied by measures of success.
A key lesson still to be learnt is that tackling women's offending is not just a matter for the justice system. We believe that there must be much more explicit recognition, including by the Parliamentary Under Secretary for Justice, Women and Equalities, of the need to focus as much on those women and girls at the periphery as those who are already involved in the system. We welcome the commitment to generate a 'whole system' approach to these issues but there is little to signal a radical shift in thinking about what this means. We suggest some additional safeguards to broaden cross-departmental accountability including extending full representation on the newly created Advisory Board to other relevant Government Departments and the inclusion of matters relating to women's offending as a standing item on the agenda for the Inter-Ministerial Group on Equalities. We recommend that, once adopted, these governance arrangements are subsequently reviewed to consider whether responsibility for the overall strategic approach should transfer to the Department for Communities and Local Government.
There is little evidence that the equality duty, and its forerunner the gender equality duty, have had the desired impact on systematically encouraging local mainstream commissioners to provide services tackling the underlying causes of women's offending, or on consistently informing broader policy initiatives within the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). Both struggle to reflect fully the distinct needs of female offenders. We are extremely disappointed that there is still not sufficient evidence about what those needs are, or how best to address them. There have been improvements in the provision for women, notably the development of a network of women's community projects. We believe these projects must be maintained as they are central to providing a distinct approach to the treatment of women offenders, as well as playing an integral role in supporting women at risk of criminality.
We urge NOMS to consider gender as a matter of course, rather than seeking to reduce any detrimental impact on women of their general approach after the event. The most striking incidence of this is the likely impact of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms which have clearly been designed with male offenders in mind. We welcome the Government's extension of "through the gate" support to prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months, which should benefit many women offenders. The concentration on reducing reoffending seems likely to reinforce the loss of generic funding for women's community centres that has occurred since NOMS gained oversight of their funding. It is also uncertain whether there will be sufficiently strong data about what is effective for women offenders to enable new providers to make sensible commissioning decisions. We consider that there is a compelling case for commissioning services for women offenders separately and for applying other incentive mechanisms that would also encourage the diversion of women from crime.
We make a series of recommendations about the Government's review of the female custodial estate, which we welcome. Taking the size of the women's prison population as a given when recent legislative changes may create some headroom represents a missed opportunity to address wider concerns, including that: the women's prison population has not fallen sufficiently fast; over half of women continue to receive ineffective short-custodial sentences; and appropriate community provision which would arrest the use of custody, such as mental health and substance misuse treatment, remains unavailable to the courts in sufficient volume. We propose that the custodial estate review should examine in particular: the impact of recent, and planned cost savings and staff headcount reductions; means of encouraging women to take more responsibility; support for the development and sustainability of family ties; resettlement support for foreign national prisoners; staff training and competencies; and alternative forms of community-based residential provision for women who have committed offences of lesser seriousness but who might benefit from constructive regimes and support.
Prison is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with many women offenders who do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety. We revisited Baroness Corston's suggestion that those women who have committed serious offences should be held in smaller, more dispersed, custodial units. Having considered this carefully we recommend a gradual reconfiguration of the female custodial estate, coupled with a significant increase in the use of residential alternatives to custody as well as the maintenance of the network of women's centres, as these are likely to be more effective, and cheaper in the long-run, than short custodial sentences.