Women offenders: follow-up - Justice Contents

1  Introduction

Our initial inquiry

1. In March 2013, five years after Baroness Corston published A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system (henceforth "the Corston Report"), we conducted an inquiry into the treatment of women offenders and those at risk of offending.[1] The purpose of that inquiry was to follow up the findings made by the Corston Report, and to evaluate the Ministry of Justice's strategy and governance structures for dealing with women offenders.[2] A year after we published our Report we came back to the subject, taking account of the Government's Response, and seeking to consider the impact of our own recommendations on Government policy towards women offenders.[3] We requested a memorandum from the Ministry of Justice and took oral evidence from the Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP, Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties and Chair of the Advisory Board for Female Offenders; Michael Spurr, Chief Executive Officer of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS); Juliet Lyon CBE, Director of the Prison Reform Trust; and Rachel Halford, Director of Women in Prison, both of whom also sit on the Advisory Board as independent stakeholders. We also received memoranda after the evidence session from the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Reform Trust.

2. In our original Report we noted that some important progress had been made in dealing with women offenders, including an end to strip searching, a reduction in self-harm, the establishment of a network of women's centres; and the acknowledgement of a need for differential treatment for women compared with men. However, in our Report we expressed several concerns about consecutive Governments' efforts to implement the Corston Report's recommendations. In particular, we noted that the women's prison population had not fallen at a sufficient rate, with over half of women offenders receiving ineffectual short custodial sentences, and mental health and substance misuse treatment programmes were not available to the courts in sufficient volume. In relation to the Government's Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, we welcomed the extension of 'through-the-gate' support to prisoners sentenced to less than twelve months, but criticised the overall programme as having "clearly been designed to deal with male offenders".[4] We concluded that prison was "an expensive and ineffective" way to deal with many women offenders who did not pose a significant risk to the public.[5] We called for the gradual reconfiguration of the female custodial estate, with women who have committed serious offences being held in smaller custodial units, and a greater use of alternatives to custodial sentencing including the improvement of women's community centres.[6]

3. Following our initial inquiry, the Government issued its Response to our Report, published alongside a Women's Custodial Estate Review and a Stocktake of Women's Services for Offenders in the Community, and an annual update on the delivery of the Government's strategic objectives for female offenders.[7] In its Response, the Government stated its overall view was that there should be one justice system for all offenders who committed crimes and that it did not agree that prison was ineffective for many women offenders. It noted that the sentencing of offenders was a matter for the independent judiciary and that they had to be able to use custody where necessary. The Government's Response also pointed out that the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) had had gender-specific standards in place since 2008, and provided a range of gender-specific programmes to reflect the fact that factors associated with women's offending could be different from men's. The Government agreed that the criminal justice system needed to continue to be properly responsive to the needs of female offenders.[8]

Trends in women's offending and sentencing

4. During our initial inquiry, we found that the majority of women offenders posed little risk to public safety and that imprisonment was frequently an ineffective response. We recognised that women faced very different hurdles from men in their attempt to work towards a law-abiding life, and that the problems they faced had to be responded to appropriately so that effective action could be taken to address their offending behaviour.[9] The Government is required by law to publish data to show whether there is any discrimination in how the criminal justice system treats people based on their gender, and does so on a biennial basis.[10] The most recent statistics, published in November 2014, relate to 2013.[11]

5. We provided detailed information on trends in women's offending and sentencing in our initial Report, and little appears to have changed in terms of the proportion of the prison population accounted for by women.[12] Women currently account for 4.6% of the total prison population, a slight reduction from 5.0% at the time of our initial inquiry. In terms of sentencing patterns, women continue to be given shorter custodial sentences than men, with 77% of all female offenders receiving a short sentence and a third of women serving sentences of less than 3 months, compared to a quarter of males. Nineteen per cent of women were remanded in custody, a proportion which statistics show has been broadly similar over the past 5 years.[13]

1   Home Office, The Corston Report, March 2007 Back

2   The full terms of reference for the Committee's inquiry can be found in the annex.  Back

3   Justice Committee, Second Report of Session 2013-14, Women offenders: after the Corston Report, HC 92-I Back

4   Ibid, para 143 Back

5   Ibid, para 197 Back

6   IbidBack

7   Ministry of Justice, Government response to the Justice Committee's Second Report of Session 2013-14: Female Offenders, October 2013; National Offender Management Service, Women's Custodial Estate Review, October 2013; National Offender Management Service, Stocktake of Women's Service for Offenders in the Community, October 2013; Ministry of Justice, Update on delivery of the Government's strategic objectives for female offenders, March 2014 Back

8   Ministry of Justice, Government response to the Justice Committee's Second Report of Session 2013-14: Female Offenders, October 2013 Back

9   HC [Session 2013-14] 92-I, para 16 Back

10   Under section 95 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. Back

11   Ministry of Justice, Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2013, November 2014 Back

12   IbidBack

13   IbidBack

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Prepared 24 March 2015