Women offenders: after the Corston Report - Justice Committee Contents

1  Introduction

Our inquiry

1.  Five years after the March 2007 publication of Baroness Corston's report A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system (hereafter "the Corston Report"), which made a series of recommendations to drive improvement in the women's criminal justice agenda, we decided to hold an inquiry to review progress and examine current strategy and practice with respect to female offenders and those at risk of offending. In particular we sought to explore:

  • The nature and effectiveness of the Ministry of Justice's strategy for women offenders and those at risk of offending;
  • The nature and effectiveness of Ministry of Justice governance structures for women's offending;
  • The extent to which work to address the multiple and complex needs of women offenders is integrated across Government;
  • The extent to which the gender equality duty has become a lever for mainstream service commissioners —outside of the criminal justice system— to provide services which tackle the underlying causes of female offending;
  • The suitability of the women's custodial estate and prison regimes;
  • The volume, range, quality, and sustainability of community provision for female offenders, including approved premises;
  • The availability of appropriate provision for different groups of women offenders, including: under 18s, women with children, foreign nationals and black, asian and minority ethnic women, and those with mental health problems.

2.  We are grateful for the evidence we have received from a wide range of witnesses, including from Baroness Corston herself, women who were involved in the criminal justice system, the Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Inspectorates, probation trusts and prisons, women's community projects, and other service providers.

3.  We begin our Report by revisiting the Corston Report and examining how its recommendations have influenced developments in policy and practice. We then consider the Ministry of Justice's approach to the issues that the Corston Report highlights, including their governance arrangements and strategic priorities, before finally making some observations about how progress can be made afresh in the context of the Government's broader priorities in criminal justice and beyond.

Overview of the Corston Report

4.  In 2006 Baroness Corston was commissioned by the Home Office to examine what could be done to avoid women with particular vulnerabilities ending up in prison, prompted by the deaths of six women at HMP Styal.[1] Her report identified three categories of vulnerabilities for women related to:

  • domestic circumstances and problems such as domestic violence, childcare issues, being a single parent;
  • personal circumstances such as mental illness, low self-esteem, eating disorders, substance misuse;
  • socio-economic factors such as poverty, isolation and employment.[2]

5.  The Corston Report made 43 recommendations, the key themes of which included:

  • improvements to high level governance and cross-departmental working for women offenders and those at risk of offending, including the establishment of an Inter-Ministerial Group to govern a new Commission for women who offend or are at risk of offending;
  • the reservation of custodial sentences and remand for serious and violent women offenders and the use of small local custodial centres for such offenders within 10 years;
  • improvements to prison conditions, including sanitation arrangements and a reduction of strip-searching in women's prisons;
  • community sentences used as the norm and the development of a wider network of one-stop-shop community provision for women offenders and those at risk of offending; and
  • improvements in health services and support for women offenders.

6.  Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, and herself a member of the Corston review team, explained that the Corston Report added weight to previous inquiries, including reviews by Dorothy Wedderburn, the Fawcett Society, the Cabinet Office and a joint prison and probation inspectorates report, which had all drawn similar conclusions:

"There were a number of reviews, all of which said pretty much the same thing, that it would be perfectly possible in relation to public safety to reduce the number of women going to prison, that the emphasis should be on proportionality, sentencing and fairness and there should be options in the community, bearing in mind that most women were nonviolent, petty persistent offenders in the main and that many had primary care responsibilities for their children."[3]


7.  The then Government's response to the Corston Report, which accepted 41 of the 43 recommendations and set out how each of these would be addressed, was published nine months later. At the same time the Government announced that Maria Eagle MP would become Ministerial Champion for Women and Criminal Justice and a cross-departmental Women's Policy Unit was created within the Home Office to drive the reforms. Much of the evidence we received claimed that the current Government had accorded less priority to fulfilling the Corston agenda, having dismantled this governance infrastructure. In this Report we inevitably address this question, but we do so in the constructive spirit of wishing to reinvigorate improvements in the criminal justice system for women. We also examine a number of relevant developments which have occurred since we announced our inquiry, including the Government's appointment of a Ministerial champion; announcement of a review of the female custodial estate; publication of its strategic priorities for women offenders; and embarkation upon an extensive overhaul of the provision of offender management and rehabilitative services.

Trends in women's offending and sentencing

8.  The Government is required to publish data to determine whether there is any discrimination in how the criminal justice system treats people based on their gender.[4] The Ministry of Justice produces annual statistics on women in the criminal justice system, the most recent of which relate to 2011.[5] Key findings include:

  • women have accounted for around 15% of offenders under supervision in the community as a result of community and suspended sentence orders, and five per cent of the total prison population, in each of the last five years.
  • women tend to be subject to shorter community orders than men: of the 12,925 women supervised under a community order that year, 14% were supervised for less than one year compared to 7% of men.
  • women are less likely to be sentenced to custody than men: 3% of females were sentenced to immediate custody, compared to 10% of males.
  • women also tend to serve shorter custodial sentences than men: a greater proportion of women in prison under immediate custodial sentence were serving sentences of twelve months or less than men (21% and 10%, respectively), and similarly for sentences of six months or less (15% and 7% respectively).[6]

9.  The fact that short sentences account for a greater proportion of women being in prison is thought likely to be attributable to a range of factors including differences in the offence types committed by men and women, with women tending to have committed offences of lesser seriousness. In the 12 months to June 2012, 81% of women entering custody under sentence had committed non-violent offences, compared with 71% of men.[7] For example, over half (52%) of women sentenced had committed petty offences related to theft and the handling of stolen goods, compared with one-third (33%) of men. In addition, over a quarter (26%) of women sentenced to imprisonment had no previous convictions, more than double the figure for men (12%). Among those serving sentences of less than 12 months the disparity is greater: 29% of women, compared to 12% of men, have no previous convictions.[8]

10.  Between 2000 and 2007 the annual average women's prison population increased by 31%.[9] Following Baroness Corston's report the population continued to increase and fluctuate, but there are encouraging signs that it is beginning to reduce. Between 2007 and 2012 the average annual female prison population has fallen by 5%, against a rise in the total average annual prison population of almost 9%.[10] A total of 9,832 women were received into prison in 2012, representing a 3% fall on the previous year, but a 17% fall since 2007.[11] The number of women remanded in custody in 2012 was also lower, falling by 9% since 2011 and by 28% since 2007. Nevertheless, women continue to account for a similar proportion (9%) of prison receptions as, since their average length of sentence is shorter to that of men, both from magistrates' courts and the Crown Court, their turnover is higher.


11.  Baroness Corston's tripartite categorisation of the vulnerabilities of women who end up in prison illustrates the multiple and complex problems that many female offenders face. Our witnesses generally endorsed her findings that the extent of need is frequently greater than amongst male offenders and vulnerabilities are more widespread. Women's offence profiles and distinct needs were borne out in the caseloads described to us by individual probation trusts, women's community projects and others working in the sector. [12] The Nelson Trust, for example, described to us its service users as:

"…women already at the margins of criminal behaviour who have not yet been arrested: binge-drinking, antisocial behaviour, sex working, abusive relationships, crack and heroin use, rough sleeping, personality disorders and unaddressed mental health problems all correlate highly with a drift towards offending behaviour even though none of these, except drug possession, are offences themselves".[13]

12.  Ministry of Justice statistics gathered from women's community projects data show that almost half of the women referred to the projects have needs in more than four areas: 48% have drug or alcohol problems, 40% have experienced domestic violence, sexual abuse or rape and 8% of women are involved in prostitution. 52% of the women engaging with projects have children.[14]


13.  Baroness Corston's vision was for her report to initiate the creation of a "distinct, radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach".[15] Women's Breakout believed that it is now agreed that the case has been well made that: i) the majority of women imprisoned should not be; ii) to prevent and reduce crime committed by women gender specific approaches delivered in women only community based organisations work best; and iii) to achieve equitable outcomes for the majority of women, they need to receive different interventions to the majority of men.[16] The Probation Chiefs' Association, Prison Governors' Association and Michael Spurr of NOMS agreed that the Corston Report had given a huge impetus to improving awareness that women require a different and distinct approach.[17] As we noted above, there was certainly a significant consensus about the distinct needs of women in the evidence we received.

14.  There are voices which reject that consensus. In a Westminster Hall debate on 16th October, Philip Davies MP described the women offenders agenda as "one of the starkest examples of how politically correct this country has become" and stated that "all the hysteria surrounding women in the justice system is completely without foundation".[18] He suggested the agenda was pinned on a series of myths, including that: i) women are very likely to be sent to prison and are more likely than men to be given a custodial sentence; ii) women are imprisoned for short sentences and not very serious offences; iii) women are remanded in custody but not subsequently sentenced to custody; iv) prison separates mothers from their children, which unfairly punishes them; and v) women are treated more harshly than men in the criminal justice system.[19]

15.  In his evidence to us he cites a range of official statistics in support of some of these arguments which showed, for example, that: a higher proportion of men are given immediate custody than women; these men receive higher average sentence lengths than women; women are imprisoned for a range of offences, including violent offences; men are more likely to be remanded in custody; the number of women in prison has fallen as a percentage of the total prison population; a large number of children are separated from their fathers as a result of imprisonment; and many women are not looking after their children at the time they are sentenced.[20] This evidence does not take into account the statistics cited above that indicate that within categories of offence women tend to commit offences of lesser seriousness than men, or other factors that might be taken into account in sentencing including previous offending history and relevant mitigating factors. For example, Helen Grant MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Women and Equalities, acknowledged in her evidence to us that women offenders are a "highly vulnerable group"; she recognised that they often commit crime because of their vulnerability, for example, as a result of domestic violence, sexual abuse and mental health problems, and because of "earlier failures to protect and support them", and that they are more likely to be primary carers when sentenced.[21]

16.  In our view there is general agreement that the majority of women offenders pose little risk to public safety and that imprisonment is frequently an ineffective response. It is also now well recognised that it is not permissible for women offenders to be dealt with in the same way as men within a criminal justice system designed for the majority of offenders. This is not about treating women more favourably or implying that they are less culpable. Rather it is about recognising that women face very different hurdles from men in their journey towards a law abiding life, responding appropriately to the kinds of problems that women in the criminal justice system bring into it, and taking the requisite action to be effective in addressing their offending behaviour.

1   The Home Office Minister, Baroness Scotland, made a Statement on 17 November 2005 about developments at Styal prison following these deaths between August 2002 and August 2003 and further work planned relating to women offenders. The Minister noted the need to take stock of the work being done and to look again at the measures in place to address the needs of these vulnerable and damaged women, and subsequently commissioned Baroness Corston to undertake the review. HL Deb, 17 November 2005, cols WS99-101. Back

2   Home Office, The Corston Report: A report by Baroness Jean Corston of a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, March 2007  Back

3   Q 138. See Justice for Women: The Need for Reform detailing the findings and recommendations of the independent Committee on Women's Imprisonment, chaired by Professor Dorothy Wedderburn. Back

4   Under section 95 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991  Back

5   Ministry of Justice, Women and the criminal justice system, November 2012 Back

6   The average custodial sentence length given to women in magistrates' courts was 2.3 months, compared to 2.6 months for men, and for such sentences given in Crown Court, the average was 19.9 months, compared to 25.1 months for men. The only crime for which women tend to receive longer custodial sentences than men is criminal damage.  Back

7   Ministry of Justice, Criminal Justice Statistics, June 2012. See also Ev w32 [Note: references to 'Ev wXX' are references to written evidence in the volume of additional written evidence published on the Committee's website] Back

8   Ibid. Back

9   Ministry of Justice, Offender management caseload statistics 2012: annual average prison population table, May 2012 Back

10   Ibid. Back

11   Ministry of Justice, Offender management caseload statistics 2012: first receptions table, May 2012 Back

12   See for example Ev w7, Ev 103, Ev 66, Ev w45, Ev 114, Ev w57, Ev w63, Ev w70, Ev 74, Ev 82, Ev w109 Back

13   Ev w32 Back

14   All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the penal system, Women in the penal system: Second report on women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, London, 2011 Back

15   The Corston Report, cover page Back

16   Ev 69 Back

17   Q 226 [Mr McLennan Murray], Q 273 [Mr Spurr], Ev 120 Back

18   Ev w101 Back

19   HC Deb, 16 Oct 2012, Col 32WHff Back

20   Ev w135 Back

21   Qq 253, 257 Back

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Prepared 15 July 2013