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Why we must do more to intervene early with women at the point of arrest

Opportunities exist to prevent women being drawn into the criminal justice system, the Prison Reform Trust says
Published - 24/03/2017 By - Dr Thomas Guiney - Prison Reform Trust

In 2016 ‘Sarah’ was arrested for low-level criminal damage. It was a particularly chaotic period in her life and police were concerned that after more than ten years drug-free, she had relapsed. Sarah could have been charged, but instead the police referred Sarah to an in innovative new scheme in London providing specialist support for women at risk of further offending.

A new report published by the Prison Reform Trust reveals there are still significant variations across England and Wales in how the police deal with women who commit low-level, but often persistent crime. Our research suggests that opportunities are being missed to nip problems in the bud, and help women to overcome the root causes of their offending behaviour.

Women represent a small minority of those in the criminal justice system, with nearly 140,000 women arrested in England and Wales during 2015/16 compared with over 750,000 men. Their crimes are overwhelmingly non-violent, and are often rooted in financial hardship, abusive relationships, addiction and poor mental health. More women were sent to prison in the year to June 2016 to serve a sentence for theft than for violence against the person, robbery, sexual offences, fraud, drugs, and motoring offences combined.

Opportunities exist to prevent women being drawn into the criminal justice system, and particularly prison, but since 2007 the number of women receiving an out of court disposal has fallen by over 60%.

Our report shows that we can and should do better. Drawing on detailed research and interviews with police, probation staff, women’s voluntary sector providers and national policy-makers, Fair Cop? sets out simple, practical steps that all police force areas can take to shift our focus to earlier intervention when women first come into contact with the criminal justice system, rather trying to pick up the pieces once someone has ended up in prison.

The positive work now taking place in Durham, Humberside, Manchester, Surrey and Wales reveals what can be achieved when local services come together to problem-solve women’s offending. With committed senior leadership and effective partnership working between from the police, local authorities, probation, and the NHS funded liaison and diversion services it is possible to halt the costly revolving door of our creaking criminal justice system. Key to this change is greater collaboration with women’s centres which provide transformational services that are proven to reduce women’s reoffending.

Violence against women and girls is now a top priority for the Home Office. The Justice Secretary Liz Truss has recently made clear that ‘early intervention is not a ‘nice to have’ added extra to the justice system, it is vital if we are ever to break the cycle of crime, punishment and more crime.’ We agree, and are concerned  that a commitment to open five new community prisons for women sends out the wrong message. Rather than investing yet more money into prisons, the government should instead invest in the futures of women on the fringes of the criminal justice system. Unlike prisons, which diminish responsibility and increase dependence, early intervention at the point of arrest is enabling vulnerable women to take responsibility for themselves and their children.

In their new joint strategy ‘Policing Vision 2025’ the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) and National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) signal their commitment to transforming the way the police service ‘delivers its mission with a keen focus on prevention and the effective management of risk’. By tackling the things that we know lead to a woman’s offending we create the opportunity to break that cycle, and turn their lives around. It is early days for Sarah but she has made significant progress. She has stayed clean, left a violent relationship and has not committed any offences for six months. Not all women get this second chance.

More information can be found on The Prison Reform Trust website.

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