Investing in ending women's reoffending would save money - and families

By WIP's Chief Executive Kate Paradine

First published in the Huffington Post.

Investing in solutions that will ensure that women and their children are supported to break the vicious cycle of offending, saving millions to the public purse in the process.

Today, I am giving evidence to MPs on the Justice Select Committee who are investigating the unprecedented crisis in our prisons and what can be done about it over the next five years.

I am keen to convey the overwhelming evidence showing that prison doesn’t work and that a change of approach is needed. It fails to deliver justice or reduce re-offending and increases trauma and harm to some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens.

Most of the 3,800 women in prison (5% of the overall prison population) have been victims of violence and abuse as children or adults. A third grew up in care. The vast majority are serving short sentences for low level non-violent offences, mostly theft (including shoplifting) – usually linked to mental ill health, substance misuse, poverty and domestic violence. Women are often a family’s primary carer and in nine out of 10 cases when a mother goes to prison her children will have to leave home to live with relatives or go into the care system.

The Government’s new ‘Female Offender Strategy’ reflects some of the blueprint for change set out in Baroness Jean Corston’s ground-breaking 2007 report. The strategy includes a welcome end to plans to build new women’s prisons and a commitment to reduce the women’s prison population by focussing on diversion and community alternatives to custody.

At the heart of delivering the strategy sit a network of local women’s centres providing services to address the root causes of offending – mental ill health, domestic violence, substance misuse, debt and homelessness. In Manchester, such services have helped to reduce imprisonment of women by 35%. A recent evaluation shows that for every £1 spent on women’s centres, £4.68 is saved in other areas of public spending.

The strategy could mark the beginning of a long-term cross-party plan to drastically reduce re-offending, whilst saving millions of pounds spent on counterproductive and harmful prison sentences. If a national network of women’s centres delivering holistic services was funded to demonstrate its effectiveness – a similar model could be rolled out to reduce the male prison population and to tackle high rates of men’s re-offending.

However, the desperate reality for such centres suggests that we are a long way from making this a reality. The disastrous ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ reforms that privatised the probation service and brutal cuts to public services have taken their toll on women’s centres. Those that have managed to remain open endure an unsustainable ‘hand to mouth’ existence, with staff routinely at risk of redundancy and services diminished or threatened with closure.

Aside from funding linked to tackling domestic violence, a pitiful £1.5million has been allocated over two years for running services linked to the government’s new strategy across England and Wales. This compares to £342million additional funding found for private companies delivering the failed reforms to the probation service. It is despite the fact that millions were earmarked to build new women’s prisons, and many more millions will come from the sale of HMP Holloway – the women’s prison in London closed two years ago and now sitting empty on acres of valuable land.

The direct costs of women caught up in the criminal justice system largely fall to the Ministry of Justice and policing, but locking up women with complex needs is also a public health issue. Funding needs to come from across government departments to reflect the causes of, and solutions to, women’s offending. It is an affront to justice that where a woman lives influences whether or not she receives community support or a prison sentence and this postcode lottery needs to be urgently addressed.

Our shamefully high imprisonment rate, the highest in Western Europe, can only be reduced if we increase the confidence of police, the courts and the public in community alternatives to prison that deliver justice and address the causes of crime. Adequately funded women’s centres, offering proven constructive long-term solutions, working collaboratively with police, local authorities, health providers and probation, could have a central role in halving the women’s prison population by the next decade.

For the first time, a cross-party consensus exists that there is a more effective way to administer justice and that the answer to the catastrophe in our prisons, lies in our communities. What is needed now is urgent action: Investing in solutions that will ensure that women and their children are supported to break the vicious cycle of offending, saving millions to the public purse in the process.