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According to a report by the Women's Justice Taskforce in the UK, effective community sentences that command the confidence of the courts, rather than incarceration, should cut women’s offending, reduce the women’s prison population and save the public purse.
Over the past 15 years the women’s prison population has risen from 1,800 to over 4,000 today – an increase of 114%. Most women serve short sentences for non-violent crime and for those serving sentences of less than 12 months, almost two thirds are re-convicted within a year of release. The average cost of a women’s prison place is £56,415 a year. By contrast, an intensive community order costs in the region of £10,000 - £15,000.
The Taskforce was established in 2010 by the Prison Reform Trust, supported by the Bromley Trust, to take a fresh look at an old problem this time focussing on the economics, structure and accountability of women’s justice. Chaired by Fiona Cannon OBE, Diversity and Inclusion Director at Lloyds Banking Group, its membership includes senior representatives from the Magistrates’ Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers, probation, prisons, women’s centres, politics, the media and former offenders. The report, Reforming Women’s Justice, includes an economic analysis by Dr James Robertson, former chief economist at the National Audit Office.
The report makes clear that the current economic climate and the government’s proposed overhaul of the justice system provide a timely opportunity to look again at how women’s justice is delivered. The government's programme to reduce unnecessary imprisonment should be accelerated, and the money saved from the women’s prison estate reinvested to support effective services for female offenders in the community. Many of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside of the justice system in health, housing, and treatment for drug addiction and mental health needs. This demands a coordinated cross-departmental approach. The report calls for greater ministerial accountability and a cross-government strategy for women’s justice with accountability built into relevant roles within government departments and local authorities.
The Taskforce says lessons can be learnt from reform of the youth justice system where, in contrast to women, there has been a measurable reduction in the numbers of children in prison, the numbers of young people entering the justice system for the first time, and in youth offending. It suggests that proposals in the Ministry of Justice’s green paper, Breaking the Cycle, to devolve youth custody budgets to local authorities should be extended to women’s custodial provision.
Dr Robertson’s economic analysis draws on evidence that investing in appropriate alternatives to custody for women could reduce intergenerational offending and is more cost effective than prison in the long term. Women released from custody having served a sentence of less than 12 months are more likely to reoffend than those who received a community order; in 2008 the difference in proven reoffending rates was 8.3%. An estimated 17,700 children are separated from their mothers by imprisonment and only 5% of them remain in their own home whilst their mother is in custody. According to Dr Robertson, research studies to date support the likelihood of “an overall net advantage for society from community based intervention for women offenders, compared to custodial sentences.”
However, while women’s prisons are funded centrally through the National Offender Management Service, women’s centres rely on a wide range of funding sources to enable them to supervise court orders and deliver services for vulnerable women in their area. The Taskforce heard evidence from the manager of one centre that was reliant on 37 different funding streams, with a mixture of statutory and non-statutory sources, all with different methods of evaluation and reporting arrangements.
On 11 May 2011 the Ministry of Justice announced a one off joint funding package of £3.2m between the National Offender Management Service and the Corston Independent Funders’ Coalition to keep women centres open for 2011/12. The report states: “Whilst this is undoubtably positive news, the current situation of regular funding crises and last minute rescues is counterproductive and should be resolved ... What is currently unclear is the criteria by which projects will be assessed, and the levels of funding that will be available.”