Doing what works

Katy Swaine Williams and José Aguiar discuss much-needed steps to reform women’s justice.

Too many women are imprisoned unnecessarily in the UK, many on remand or serving short sentences, and most for non-violent offences. For many of these women, drug and alcohol issues are intimately connected with their offending behaviour. In turn, problematic substance use all too often coincides with underlying mental health needs and domestic abuse.  

Research shows that women are more likely than men to report that their offending was to support someone else’s drug use, as well as their own. As one commentator quoted in the 2007 Corston review of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system put it, ‘A vicious cycle of victimisation and criminal activity develops, creating a toxic lifestyle that is extremely difficult to escape.’ 

For some, prison does provide a form of escape, albeit temporary. It may prove a refuge from domestic violence or sexual abuse, or it may be the place where women first access treatment for drug or alcohol problems – although for others it is where substance use problems first develop. However, while drug treatment services in prison are better than they were, problems persist with the transition from community to prison and vice versa, and short sentences are unlikely to allow for effective treatment. Release is a dangerous time, with women prisoners nearly 70 times more likely to die during the week after leaving prison relative to the general population, with 59 per cent of those deaths drug related.

More often than not, prison compounds the problems that may have contributed to women’s offending behaviour in the first place. The trauma of separation from children, loss of income and housing and the breaking of links with health and social care services all contribute to the damage that can be caused, even by short sentences.  

This is why the Prison Reform Trust, supported by the Pilgrim Trust, has adopted a three-year programme to reform women’s justice. We are working alongside civic society organisations including the Soroptimists and the National Council of Women to put an end to the unnecessary imprisonment of women who pose no risk to the public, including those affected by drug and alcohol issues.

The Corston review concluded that ‘community provision for non-violent women should be the norm’ and received cross-party support, yet women’s prison numbers remain much too high and gender-specific community support and supervision – often provided through women’s centres – lurch from year to year with uncertain and increasingly limited funding.


Government research has shown that community sentences are more effective in reducing reoffending than short prison sentences, and gender-sensitive community sentencing – taking account of childcare needs and carried out in safe environments – is known to help reduce offending behaviour. Sentences can include mandatory treatment for mental health, drug and alcohol problems, and while this may present ethical dilemmas for treatment providers it is surely preferable to seeing women locked up by magistrates who hope that they will get the treatment they need while inside. 

Through our Talking Justice programme, supported by the Monument Trust, we aim to increase public understanding of community solutions to women’s offending and inform public debate. The solutions include improving and extending specialist community support for women at risk of offending, as well as ensuring that liaison and diversion services for those with mental health needs and learning disabilities – currently available in some police stations and courts, and due to be extended across England and Wales – make appropriate provision for women.  

As in the prison system, women represent a small minority of community drug and alcohol treatment service users. Mainstream services can help to redress this balance by holding women-only groups and drop-in sessions, and by working closely with specialist partner organisations like Women’s Aid and local women’s centres. However, treatment providers acknowledge there is much more to be learned about how women can be better supported to access treatment.

The Kaleidoscope Project’s conference in Cardiff last month (see page 10) provided a welcome opportunity to examine how better use can be made of community solutions. There is room for optimism in Wales, and the opportunity to lead the way in delivering effective community services for women, with Wales Probation and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) Cymru working together to tackle women’s offending. The Integrated Offender Management (IOM) Cymru board has endorsed the development of a women offender pathfinder to manage women offenders under a coordinated ‘whole system’ approach from first contact with the police onwards, and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) has committed to reducing the number of Welsh women in prison by increasing the community sentencing options and prevention activities. 

The Ministry of Justice is undertaking a review of the women’s prison estate which hopefully will lead to a reduction in women’s prison places and the eventual development of a network of smaller, local units for the minority of women offenders for whom prison is the only option. The department has to reduce its resource budget by 23 per cent by 2014/15, which should provide a powerful incentive to make prison a genuine last resort and focus investment on community solutions. 

This means ensuring appropriate, gender-specific provision is made in every area across the country to allow women to be supported and supervised in the community to address the underlying causes of their offending behaviour, and we are calling on the government to make it a statutory requirement under the Crime and Courts Bill for this provision to be made available nationwide.  

Radical steps to reform women’s justice are also being taken in Scotland following the Commission on Women Offenders, and Northern Ireland’s Department of Justice has set out an ambitious programme aimed at addressing women’s offending in the community where possible. And the Ministry of Justice’s strategic objectives, published last month, show encouraging signs that justice ministers in Westminster share this determination to reform women’s justice and do what works.  DDN

Katy Swaine Williams is head of outreach at the Prison Reform Trust, José Aguiar is an educational consultant. With input from Jenny Earle, Reforming Women’s Justice programme director, Prison Reform Trust