CHANGES in the way in which women offenders are sentenced, including greater use of community-based orders, and rehabilitation for less serious crimes instead of prison, were proposed by the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, in a debate in the House of Lords this week.
Calling for a review of short sentences, she said: “We know that women in the justice system get caught in the so-called revolving door with short prison sentences. Women lose their homes; they often lose custody of their children, even to adoption. This often then exacerbates the downward spiral into more serious offences, and an inability to secure employment.
“Properly resourced women’s centres can provide an opportunity for a different path, where women can receive a holistic, trauma-informed approach of rehabilitation. We know that it costs approximately £47,000 per year to keep a woman in prison, but women’s centres can work effectively with approximately £4000 per woman each year.
“The majority of women offenders have experienced some sort of abuse, whether from a partner or a family member. According to the excellent organisation Women in Prison, 53 per cent of women in prison have experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse during childhood; 46 per cent report suffering domestic-abuse violence; and over 30 per cent spent time in local-authority care as a child.
“As a Christian, I believe that our humanity and flourishing is rooted in relationship. Where healing and rehabilitation take place, it comes from a place of trust in relationship. To that end, prison is rarely the most appropriate or effective place for these issues to be addressed.
“This is why there needs to be a focus and significant investment in women’s centres. In their daily provision and appropriate residential provision they can provide that place of relationship and trust.”
Her call follows a government announcement in June that women should be imprisoned only if they have committed a serious crime. The Justice Secretary, David Gauke, disclosed plans for five new residential women’s centres where, instead of incarceration, offenders would get help with drug and alcohol problems, and educational support and counselling. Plans for new women’s prisons, costing £50 million, were scrapped.
It costs taxpayers £1.7 billion a year to deal with female offenders; £5 million, over two years, will be spent on the new scheme.
Official figures show that less than one per cent of the almost 4000 women in English and Welsh prisons are violent offenders, while 89 per cent have committed a minor crime, such as shoplifting. Half of them say that their offences were committed to support someone else’s drug use: frequently a male partner. The majority were caring for children who were left without a parent when they were imprisoned. Women have much higher rates of mental-health problems in prison, and 60 per cent have experienced domestic violence.
Bishop Treweek told the Lords that the Government’s strategy since the publication 11 years ago of the Corston report on vulnerable women in prison had not gone far enough. “We know that women’s centres work and it is time for proper investment,” she said.
“A number of reports have shown that women’s centres offer an inspiring and effective alternative to custody — not least in their multi-agency work. However, they have been operating on a shoestring, and, at present, there simply is not enough resource. If the Government are committed to transforming the justice system, as the female-offender strategy suggests, they need to commit and invest in it.”
She called for a national network of centres. “I would like to encourage the Government to dream a bit bigger, and be a bit bolder. In 2017-18, we spent more than £400 million on probation and services for women; £5 million for women’s centres is a drop in the bucket, and will not be enough to transform the system. Let us give a proper network of women’s centres a proper go.”
Several of the peers spoke in support of the Government’s plans to pilot residential women’s centres as an alternative to prison. Baroness Fall (Conservative), a former Deputy Chief of Staff to David Cameron, said: “In an ideal world, we would see fewer women come into the justice system in the first place. To make this a reality, we need to build a support structure around these women, especially when they are at their most vulnerable.
“For many women, that is at the point of release, when they may have no job or home to return to. Women’s centres have a great deal to offer here.”
The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Dholakia, who is chairman of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, suggested that the Government should establish a women’s justice board. “This would not marginalise women in the criminal justice system,” he said, “but rather mainstream their provision and ensure that under the national offender management structure, ample priority is given to service provision for, and management of, women offenders.”