03/03/2016 07:22 GMT | Updated 02/03/2017 05:12 GMT

The Work of Women's Centres in the Criminal Justice System

Women's engagement with agencies within the criminal justice system is different from men. This has been recognised by policy-makers, politicians and academics and has led to the emergence of women's services that are diverse with provision mainly from the voluntary sector. This blog will outline what is known about the work of women's centres in the criminal justice system as well as presenting results from a recent study.

New interventions are supporting women from the point they are arrested, with sentencing and when they are released from prison. Referrals are received from the police, the courts including problem solving courts and prisons. Very little has been known about the details of the involvement of women's centres with supporting women in the criminal justice system. Studies have claimed that work with women in the criminal justice system focuses on individual problems for women rather than tackling issues such as having poor housing, unemployment or support from a range of institutions (Haney, 2010; Kendal, 2013). According to Gelsthorpe and Hedderman (2012) there is a lack of evidence for women-centred projects due to the lack of measurements of impact and difficulties with evaluating services. Critics claim that women only services have been expected to provide rehabilitation programmes 'without consent, adequate training or financial support' (Mythen et al, 2012).

Women's centres provide a range of support not just by providing specialist through the gate resettlement services but also are involved with advocacy, providing information and a range of other services. Women within the criminal justice system are not all the same and are highly likely to need help with many complex issues relating to their life-histories, family circumstances as well as issues relating to resettling into communities. Several voluntary organisations are supporting women not only when they are within the criminal justice system but also by publicizing how they may have had experiences of marginalization or discrimination within their communities. The work of the voluntary sector relating to women in the criminal justice system within England and Wales currently involves a range of activities that have been summarized within a briefing document by Clinks.

A new study has been conducted by Hallam Centre for Community Justice at Sheffield Hallam University and the Policy Evaluation and Research Unit at Manchester Metropolitan University. This study found that of 640 women referred to the nine women's centres between 1 September 2014 and 30 June 2015. This study found that women who are using the women's centres need support with complex issues such as substance misuse, domestic abuse as well as having housing and mental health needs.

The main interim finding of this study is that more investment is needed in order for women's centres to continue to support women. In response to the findings of this study, Greater Manchester Mayor and Police and Crime Commissioner Tony Lloyd said, "This is an encouraging report that shows our approach to working with women offenders is starting to make a real difference to the lives of not just the women involved, but their families and society as a whole. By bringing together police, probation, health and other agencies with Greater Manchester's network of women's centres and voluntary organisations, we are helping women offenders tackle some of the underlying issues that cause them to offend, such as mental ill health and wellbeing, and substance abuse".

Caroline O' Keeffe, who led the research, explained that, "a whole system approach offers an exciting model for best practice in supporting women offenders to address the multiple needs which very often lead to their offending. In particular it offers viable ways diverting women away from custody and preventing the huge damage which imprisonment causes for women and their families".

The work of women's centres is varied and it has been shown there are positive impacts for women who are engaging successfully with them. Recent studies have explained that the role of voluntary sector organisations means they are now engaged with providing public sector services. In a competitive climate, voluntary sector organisations such as women's centres are exposed to commercial practices. Interventions within the criminal justice system could mean that organisations such as women's centres are sub-contractors. There is concern that the identities of these organisations could be lost to the interests of more powerful partners or funders (Hucklesby and Corcoran, 2016). The recent study concludes that the budget cuts and uncertainty of future funding has put the valuable work of women's centres under threat. While the research by O'Keefe et al (2016) showed that work with women can be time-consuming and resource intensive, it is valued and helps women with a range of issues that cannot be measured such as feeling positive, enhancing self-esteem and reducing the chances of offending in the future. While women's centres are doing valuable work, the uncertainty of future funding means that the these centres are at risk.

For more information and resources go to research for women in prison.