Need to increase support for women at risk to break out of justice loop
NOVEMBER 25, 2016
Liz Hogarth, Agenda steering group member
Ten years ago, the Corston Review was initiated amidst a growing sense of outrage at increasing numbers of women dying in custody.
External pressure grew following a series of inquests into six deaths in custody in HMP Styal in Wilmslow within a 13 month period. At the time the Cheshire Coroner Nicholas Rheinberg said:
“I saw a group of damaged individuals committing for the most part petty crime, for whom imprisonment represents a disproportionate response.”
The Corston Review was set up to look in detail at what was happening to cause so many women to get sucked into the criminal justice system who should not have been there in the first place. In particular, this included women receiving short and repeated custodial sentences for petty offences, who often had issues around mental health or dual diagnosis (co-existing substance and mental ill health).
The Corston Review recommended not only reform of the criminal justice system where women were concerned; but also highlighted the need to put prevention firmly on the agenda, demanding a focus on women ‘at risk’ of offending.
To achieve this, it called for an expanded network of holistic women’s projects and centres across the country, to support women experiencing severe and multiple disadvantage. It did not make sense, it argued, that these women, who were often repeatedly failed by health and social care systems, only got attention, support and a policy focus once they had become involved in the criminal justice system, when it was sometimes too late.
At the time, the Corston Report really did seem to have the potential to be a game-changer. But while there were some positive steps in the years following its release, ten years on nothing has really changed. Prison still remains a disproportionate and inappropriate response for far too many women. Many of the women’s centres struggle for funding and are under threat – some have closed.
From 2002 to 2016 the overall numbers serving short sentences have remained the same. The use of community orders has actually gone down.
Eighty four per cent of women entering prison have committed non-violent offences.
From May 2015 to June 2016, 70 per cent of women entering custody were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment or less.
Around 50 per cent of women remanded in custody do not go on to receive a custodial sentence, or are acquitted.
And, while concern about women’s deaths in custody prompted the Corston Review, the situation now is actually much worse.
In 2016 there were 22 deaths; 12 known to be self-inflicted and six still awaiting classification. The women who have died are chillingly similar to those described by the Cheshire Coroner more than a decade ago. They were often women affected by severe and enduring multiple disadvantage, who had got sucked into the criminal justice system because of failures in the health and social care systems: women who should not be in prison.
But the justice system is still prison-centric. In its Prison Reform White Paper, the government outlines plans to spend £50 million creating five new ‘community prisons’ which will no doubt be filled with yet more women who should, or do not need to be there.
There still appears to be a tendency amongst some members of the judiciary to view prison as a potential place of safety and only where a woman can get the help she needs, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
It is never appropriate to use prison as a place of safety for vulnerable and/or homeless women, or those deemed by the judiciary to be at risk of harm from herself or others in the community.
Nor should prison be used as a pseudo ‘hospital’ to assess, contain or treat those with complex mental health issues or addiction problems.
There is an urgent need to break out of the ‘justice loop’ now and broaden the focus, shifting attention on how best to stem the flow of women into the criminal justice system.
The locus for change has to be on improving and increasing woman-centred support and services in the community for women with extensive experience of abuse and trauma. The £50 million earmarked for building five new ‘community prisons’ for women should be re-directed to fund the work on prevention.
The network of woman-centred projects should be rebuilt, expanded and nurtured so that they are embedded in local communities. They should be involved, along with others in the women’s sector, in shaping the local strategy for women with multiple, complex needs and in the design, development and delivery of gender-sensitive health and social care provision.
Focusing efforts on what is needed to support women at the earliest stage of contact with the criminal justice system or even before, presents a real opportunity to realise the original Corston vision for ‘women at risk’.
Read Liz’s full briefing Trapped in the Justice Loop for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies here