Breaking the cycle: Why we should stop criminalising women who experience abuse

For 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, Working Chance and Women in Prison discuss how and why we advocate for a future where women are free from violence, and aren't further criminalised.

Trigger warning: domestic violence, sexual violence, rape, addiction, self-harm, violence in prison

Alice was experiencing abuse from her boyfriend.* He struggled with drug addiction and over time, he got into so much debt that he pressured Alice to take money out of the till where she worked. Fearing what would happen if she said no, she did as he said. She was caught, and ended up with a criminal conviction.

Unfortunately, Alice’s story is not uncommon. Many women in the criminal justice system have experienced abuse. This 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, it is vital for us to understand how domestic abuse sweeps women up into crime.

Abuse and offending

Domestic abuse and other gender-based violence like sexual violence and rape are closely linked to women’s offending. Almost two in three women in prison are survivors of domestic abuse. As part of its work supporting women with convictions to find employment, Working Chance sees many clients who share their experiences of abuse, and how it led them to a criminal record.

“We hear too many stories of women who have been pressured by their abusive partners to offend. Other times, a woman might have to resort to theft or fraud so she can afford to leave an abusive relationship and protect her children,” said Natasha Finlayson, Chief Executive of Working Chance. “Unfortunately, despite the context of abuse and coercion, these women are further criminalised by a system that should have helped them.”

Even if a woman’s offence is a result of abuse or exploitation, currently there is no statutory defence that she can use in court to defend herself. In the case of ‘joint enterprise’ charges, it can take as little as mere association with her abuser to implicate her in their crimes.

When a woman is then sentenced to prison, the isolation and lack of support would likely exacerbate any pre-existing emotional and mental traumas. This is partly why we are witnessing an alarming rise in self-harm among women in prison. “What we are effectively doing as a society is adding state punishment of imprisonment to the violence survivors have already suffered, which fails to address the issues which often sweep women into crime in the first place,” explained Kate Paradine, Chief Executive of Women in Prison.

Cycle of criminalisation

Not only are women likely to find prison a traumatic experience, the punishment doesn’t end there. The consequences of conviction and prison are serious and long-lasting. A criminal record is a barrier to many things that women need to recover from abuse and trauma, including employment.

We know that 96% of women are still unemployed six weeks after leaving prison, with women three times less likely to be in employment than men. Half of employers say that they wouldn’t consider hiring someone with a criminal record. The situation is even worse for racially minoritised women, who are likely to have to disclose criminal records for longer because they tend to receive harsher convictions for the same offences than white women.

Because of these systemic challenges and employer discrimination, it is incredibly difficult for women with convictions to secure employment. This means that women are left with dismal – and often dangerous – options, like returning to their abuser, or risk long-term unemployment and reliance on benefits. This is a punishment that far outlasts a sentence, and makes it more likely that women will be trapped in a cycle of criminalisation.

Supporting women

When so many women in prison have experienced domestic abuse and come into contact with the criminal justice system as a result, it is clear we should be prioritising investment and resources to ensure women aren’t sent to prison in the first place.

However, in January, the Government announced proposals to build 500 new prison places for women – the equivalent of one large women’s prison. These would cost the Government £150m just to build, not accounting for the money needed to maintain them. This could be used to support women experiencing domestic abuse instead.

We know that a lack of safe and stable housing is one of the main barriers to fleeing domestic abuse. What women who have been swept up into crime clearly need is more support through local community services – like Women’s Centres - which can help ensure survivors get help to access safe housing, welfare and mental health support to be able to leave abusive environments and recover.

The Government knows this already, and proposals for more women’s prison places fly in the face of its own strategy on women in the criminal justice system, which acknowledges that most women should not be in prison and could be better supported in the community.

Ministers claim that more places are required as a result of hiring more police officers. Yet police schemes offering early intervention show this doesn’t need to be the case. Local diversion schemes, which connect women with local support services at the point of arrest, address the root causes of why women are arrested and lead to lower rates of imprisonment.

This means that when a woman comes into contact with the police, rather than being charged and sentenced she can be referred to local services where she can get the support she needs, such as one-to-one or group support and activities in community Women’s Centres that will help address the underlying issues such as trauma, mental ill-health and harmful substance use which can affect survivors of domestic abuse.