27/06/2018 00:00 BST

Experts Say New Strategy To Help Female Offenders Is Not Properly Funded

Government launched residential centre trial scheme - but scrapped plans for five new community prisons

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A new strategy to help female offenders has been slammed after it emerged ministers are pledging scant new cash and scrapping plans for new community prisons. 

Justice Secretary David Gauke announced a pilot scheme for five residential centres for women with a £3.5m grant up to 2020. 

The scheme focuses on greater use of community punishments - as opposed to prison terms - in a bid to help women spend more time with their children.

But at the same time, ministers are scrapping five planned community prisons, all of which were shelved after the strategy was rewritten due to budget constraints.

The move is part of a drive to cut the number of female offenders serving short jail terms - something which usually sees their children placed in local authority care.

But research shows women are more than twice as likely to have a mental health issue than men, while almost half (48%) of female prisoners said they committed their offence to support the drug use of someone else - compared with 22% of male prisoners.

The Prison Reform Trust also found 57% of female prisoners reported suffering domestic violence and were often guilty of a crime less serious than ones they were a victim of. 

In the foreword to the strategy, Gauke said 70.7% of women and 62.9% of men released from custody between April and June 2016 after a sentence of less than a year went on to re-offend within 12 months.

Gauke said: “The impact on women, many of whom are sentenced for non-violent, low-level but persistent offences, often for short periods of time, is particularly significant. The prevalence of anxiety and self-harm incidents is greater than for male prisoners.

“As more female offenders are primary carers than their male counterparts, these sentences lead to a disproportionate impact on children and families and a failure to halt the intergenerational cycle of offending.”

It is estimated that female offenders cost £1.7 billion in 2015/16, of which around £1 billion were incurred by the police.

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Dame Vera Baird said money for the community prisons should be pumped into the new scheme 

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “The strategy is welcome recognition of the futility of short prison sentences for women whose offending is often driven by abusive relationships or unmet mental health needs.

“The strategy recognises that many women are victims of more serious crimes than those they are accused of, and contains many positive promises of change. But it has not provided the resource to deliver that change, and no timetable to drive it.

“If the Government turns its good intentions into action, many thousands of women and families, including victims, will benefit. That work must start immediately.”

The Government has pledged to spend £5 million over two years on “community provision” for women.

While opponents broadly welcomed a renewed focus on the complex issues female offenders face, some were critical of the lack of money committed. 

Dame Vera Baird from the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners called for cash earmarked for the prison building to be used on the new strategy.

She said: “For the strategy to achieve its intentions it needs to be properly funded. The Ministry of Justice have handed back £50 million to the Treasury that was earmarked for new prisons for women, as this building work is now rightly not happening, the money should be invested in to this strategy - that will show a real commitment from Government that it wants this strategy to succeed.”

Christina Marriott, Chief Executive of the Revolving Doors Agency, agreed that more funding was needed.

She said: “The unambiguous ambition that less women will be sentenced to ineffective and disruptive short sentences is a significant step in reducing reoffending and reducing damage to families. The task now is to make this a reality through local and national investment.”