Women offenders 'afterthought' in rehabilitation plans

A prison guard locking a door at Wormwood Scrubs prison in west London
Image caption More than half of women offenders are given short custodial sentences

Women offenders are being ignored in plans to overhaul rehabilitation services, a committee of MPs has said.

The Justice Select Committee said the women's prison population was not falling fast enough and more than half received ineffective short jail terms.

This is despite the 2007 Corston report which recommended jailing only the most serious or violent female offenders.

MPs said women were "an afterthought" in recent plans but ministers said they were committed to cutting reoffending.

In January, the Transforming Rehabilitation consultation paper set out proposals to extend payment by results to independent providers of rehabilitative services in the community.

It is part of Justice Secretary Chris Grayling's promised "rehabilitation revolution" to stop former prisoners committing crimes, which the National Audit Office estimates costs up to £13bn every year.

'Slow' progress

But the committee found the government's focus on cutting reoffending was likely to lead to a further loss of funding for women's community centres.

The MPs said there was a case for commissioning services for women offenders separately.

Committee chairman Sir Alan Beith said: "This is not about treating women more favourably or implying that they are less culpable.

"It is about recognising that women face very different hurdles from men in their journey towards a law-abiding life.

"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."

Women's centres and other community provision offered a route for diverting vulnerable women and girls away from crime, he added.

He acknowledged steps had been taken towards this goal but it had been at a "disappointingly slow pace", calling for a "systematic change" in approach and "strong ministerial leadership" on the issue.

Baroness Corston was commissioned in 2006 to examine how to avoid vulnerable women ending up in prison after six women died at Styal prison in Cheshire.

Her report, published a year later, recommended using community sentences as the norm and developing a network of community provision for women at risk of offending.

The Labour peer said progress on the issue "has not only stalled but is in danger of going into reverse".

She said current policy was "perfectly tailored for men" because there were 80,000 men behind bars - but women were ignored because there were only 4,000 in comparison.

"The overwhelming majority of them should not be there because they are troubled not troublesome," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

She also said the damage to women and their children was "incalculable".

Mental health treatment

The committee argued that maintaining a network of women's centres and using residential alternatives to custody would be more effective and cheaper in the long run than short custodial sentences.

It did not recommend major changes to the sentencing framework for women but said there should be more emphasis on courts having alternatives to custody suitable for women.

The "custodial estate" for women needed to be gradually reconfigured with serious offenders held in smaller, more dispersed units, the MPs added.

Andrew Neilson, from the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "Handing over probation to big private security firms is being given greater priority than making sure women in the justice system have the specialist support they need."

Kay, who was jailed after being convicted of drugs offences but now works for the St Giles Trust charity which works with offenders, said money spent on jailing women and putting their children into care would be better spent on offering courses or training.

"Still pay a debt to society, but do it in a community pay-back way, rather than 'you're going to prison and your children are going to be taken away from you'," she said.

'Right support'

Justice Minister Helen Grant said the government was committed to seeing fewer women offending and reoffending.

"Some female offenders need to go to prison, but we must ensure they get the right support to stop them returning to crime," she said.

She said steps included new legislation that would give all prisoners at least 12 months tailored supervision on release and increased funding for probation trusts to commission better services for women in the community.

She added that the government was "ensuring courts have credible and robust sentence options at their disposal".

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