Rory Geoghegan is Head of Criminal Justice at the Centre for Social Justice.
It was International Women’s Day last week. But for many of the country’s most vulnerable women the day passed completely unnoticed. For those caught up in lives that all too often feature violence, abuse, poor physical and mental health, an addiction to crack and heroin, and the resultant life of crime that comes with it, last week was just as bad as any other.
These women rarely get a voice. This is a plea to the current Government and successive governments to take a bold stand against the intergenerational replication of both poverty and crime, by tackling the huge social ills that come from failing to help free vulnerable women from the revolving door of crime.
Brexit, spies and nerve agents are of course dominating the political and media agendas. But the issue of vulnerable female offenders is one that just a little latitude and a little cross-government support could make a huge difference to. It’s an area of social policy that successive governments have too often simply booted into the long grass.
Female offenders represent a group of people who are often the product of truly dreadful upbringings – it doesn’t excuse their offending, but it can help explain it and, crucially, how to break the cycle. The evidence base tells us that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) play a striking role in shaping men and women alike as they move into adolescence and adulthood.
That drug-addicted, rake thin, ‘grubby-looking woman’ sitting in the shop doorway, or standing on the corner of a poorly-lit backstreet waiting for the next punter, is not the sole author of her existence. Being beaten, half-killed, and worse, comes – with so many other miseries – as the by-product of both poor choices but also the brute luck of who you find yourself born to.
The 4,000 women currently in prisons across England and Wales today are – like the men in prison – a mixed bag. Many rightly and justly deserve to be there – they pose a threat to the public or have committed offences of such seriousness or with such persistence as to merit a prison sentence, irrespective of what their childhood may have involved. This isn’t an abolitionist plea to simply “let all the women out”.
Rather, this is a sober plea for Government – and Parliament – to build on what we know works, without jeopardising public safety. Indeed – done right – our proposals would help tackle the root causes and improve public safety, for this generation and the next.
So, our proposals in A Woman-Centred Approach – a new report, launched yesterday with Dr Phillip Lee, Minister for Female Offenders – describe how successive governments have offered rhetoric on the rehabilitation of vulnerable female offenders, but done little to empower local police, probation and community-based Women’s Centres and other services to ensure that alongside any criminal justice process, the root causes of offending get tackled.
This Government has allocated £1 million to the roll-out of five ‘Whole System Approach’ projects across the country, with the goal of helping achieve what we all seek. This is to be welcomed. However, the Government’s forthcoming Female Offender Strategy can and should go further, and there is appetite across the landscape to do so.
The Government can build on two major, and largely successful, reforms of recent times: local Police and Crime Commissioners and Universal Credit.
Firstly, Government should suspend plans to build a number of poorly-defined ‘Community Prisons for Women’ and instead plough the funds – totalling up to £50 million – into a Criminal Justice Transformation Fund. Police and Crime Commissioners, working with local services like local Women’s Centres, can bid to secure capital funding to build capacity and resilience to address these vulnerable women and the drivers of their offending.
Secondly, Government should recognise that tackling recidivism will require more than the Ministry of Justice alone can offer. That’s why we challenge them to recognise that work isn’t just the best way out of poverty, it can be the best way out of crime, too.
The simple step of transferring the equivalent of Universal Credit’s Core Allowance for each female prisoner into the same fund, would generate a further £15 million of programme funding for the Transformation Fund.
This is one set of policies that has the support of the public, with polling showing 86 per cent support the idea of local Women’s Centres addressing the root causes of crime coupled with Community Payback.
And in an exclusive CSJ poll of Police and Crime Commissioners, we found 93 per cent want the Government to give them more responsibility for female offenders. Furthermore, Police and Crime Commissioners including Julia Mulligan in North Yorkshire, Katy Bourne in Sussex, and David Lloyd in Hertfordshire having already endorsed the report.
It would be a mistake for a Government concerned about frying other big fish to write off the issue of vulnerable female offenders as the political equivalent of a minnow. Rather, the Government’s approach to vulnerable female offenders should be seen as the litmus test for its commitment to real social justice and equality of opportunity.
Finally, for those who might still fail to grasp the significance of vulnerable female offenders, consider for a moment the next generation. Who do you think are the mothers of so many children taken into care, children excluded from school, or children who themselves go on to live a life of poverty and crime? Female offenders and those at risk of offending must therefore feature in any serious attempt to tackle poverty and crime in Britain today.