Women in Prison: Changing Lives gives evidence in Parliament - My CMS

Today our Executive Director for External Affairs Laura Seebohm gave evidence to the Justice Committee’s Inquiry into Women in Prisons, alongside Katy Swaine Williams from the Centre for Women’s Justice and Phil Bowen from the Centre for Justice Innovation. This inquiry seeks to understand the progress made over the past 10 years to address female offending and reduce the number of women in custody.

The Female Offender Strategy, released in 2018, aimed to reduce women coming into the criminal justice system and reduce the number of women entering custody, particularly on short sentences – goals we very much support. Sadly we have not seen much improvement since then. The female prison population has not decreased – indeed the government is planning to build 500 extra prison places. There appears to be an assumption that, because 20,000 more police officers are being introduced, that there will automatically be more women being sent to prison. We do not accept this and believe that, if more is done to support women and divert them from the criminal justice system – as is set out in the Female Offender Strategy – then we will be able to decrease prison places rather than increase them.

Laura shared our experiences of working with women who have often been victims of crimes of a much more serious nature than the ones which they have committed. There is a lot of stigmatisation, judgement and misunderstanding of women in the criminal justice system, particularly women who are mothers, meaning they can often be judged more harshly than men.

There are pockets of great practice around the country that diverts women away from the criminal justice system, but it is a postcode lottery. We are hopeful that we will see more of this, particularly through measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but there needs to be something to divert people to. Our experience is that, if they are offered the right support and the ability to build meaningful relationships, many women who offend will choose to engage with services voluntarily, even after the period of mandatory engagement given by a police caution or court order has ended. Unfortunately women’s services have been chronically underfunded and not enough has been done to support co-commissioning and holistic services, and we urge the Government to remedy this.

Laura also spoke about the fact that, if a women is assessed as having multiple needs, then often more conditions will be put on her sentence to make it more ‘robust’. This does not take into account the already oppressive demands on their lives that many women will have, and makes breaches more likely. During the pandemic, so many women told us that it was a relief not to have to jump through so many hoops. For the first time, women had their probation officer ringing them and asking how they are. This shift in relationships was transformative.

It is so important that we listen to women with lived experience. We need to work with women to understand what they need and want in order to lead not just crime-free lives but lives that are truly fulfilling.

The transcript and written evidence will be published shortly.

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