The Blog

The Special Circumstances of Women Offenders Can't Be Overlooked

Women form a relatively small proportion of the criminal justice caseload, but their circumstances are often complex, and they frequently display very high levels of need.

Last week, my colleague George Mudie organised a welcome debate in parliament on the future of probation. The government is consulting on how - not whether - to have all but the highest risk offenders supervised by private sector companies who will be paid by results.

Incredibly, the government is going ahead despite there being absolutely no evidence that this huge upheaval in our criminal justice system will work. Pilots to evaluate payment by results models have been pulled early by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling on the somewhat unscientific basis that "sometimes you just believe something is right and do it" - even, it seems, if that means scrapping more than a century of successful probation work.

I certainly don't know that it's right to hand over management of offenders in the community to profit-making companies, especially companies that have already demonstrated, from the Olympics security debacle to the crashingly bad start to the Work Programme (another Grayling brainchild), such a poor track record of achievement.

What I do know is that my own probation trust in Greater Manchester has been highly innovative over the years in developing programmes to address some of the thorniest problems of prolific offending. But it seems local probation trusts won't be allowed to bid for the new contracts. I'm deeply concerned that much good practice and established community partnership working will be lost as a result.

Private companies, meanwhile, driven by the need to protect corporate assets and maximise shareholder value, are unlikely to be attracted to the costly investment needed in order successfully to manage offenders with the most complex offending and personal histories, or the highest levels of need. Nor will competition be likely to lead to the spread of good practice: if you're driven by profit, when you have a good idea, you don't share it with your competitors - you keep it to yourself.

I'm especially concerned about how women offenders will fare under the new proposals, and I asked about this in both Justice and Cabinet Office questions this week. I can't say I was reassured by the answers I received.

Women form a relatively small proportion of the criminal justice caseload, but their circumstances are often complex, and they frequently display very high levels of need.

This was powerfully highlighted by Baroness Jean Corston in her hugely influential 2007 report on women with vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system. There have been some improvements since then, as recognition of the special needs and circumstances of women offenders has spread.

In Greater Manchester, the Women MATTA programme, run jointly by Women in Prison and the Pankhurst centre, in partnership with the probation service, is an example of the good work that's being done. By taking a holistic approach to addressing the needs of women offenders, and those at risk of offending or reoffending, Women MATTA addresses the underlying factors that so often typify women's offending behaviour.

Many women offenders have mental health problems. Many have themselves been victims of violence or abuse. And many face acute financial pressures, perhaps never more than now as the government's austerity agenda bites. That may lead them to acquisitive crime, or render them especially vulnerable to criminal and sexual exploitation.

Women's responsibility for their children, and children's wellbeing, meanwhile, need to be taken into account when sentencing options are being considered. Community provision may be particularly appropriate, as it enables women to continue to care for their children, but it also creates the need for more flexible sentences, which may be more challenging to supervise.

Yet specialist provision for women remains highly patchy, and funding pressures, including on local authority budgets, which have supported much of the underpinning architecture of women's services and women's community organisations, mean that good work is already being lost.

In these circumstances, I find it hard to believe that the economics of specialist women's provision, meeting a complex range of needs - by no means all of them to do with offending behaviour - will stack up for private providers without a radical change in approach to funding and cost. The Justice select committee is currently carrying out an inquiry into women offenders, and the effectiveness of payment by results models in relation to provision for women is an issue I hope they will carefully address.

Of course, I'd be delighted to see more good quality supervision of women in the community. Such supervision could protect family ties, enable mothers to continue to care for their children, allow women with complex needs to maintain contact with trusted health and support professionals, and overall result in significant short and long-term savings to the public purse. But the costs and potential savings lie well beyond the criminal justice system. Those savings must therefore be identified and pooled, to incentivise a wide range of interventions, and to ensure appropriate allocation of reward.

This is the experiment being attempted with the Troubled Families initiative. One crucial difference though is that the Troubled Families programme is led locally, whereas supervision of offenders in the community is to be commissioned through a small number of large scale contracts, covering geographic areas much greater than that of a single probation trust. There is real doubt that such an approach (which is, incidentally, totally at odds with the government's wider localism agenda) can deliver the kind of close-to-home, specialist, holistic support women offenders need. Instead I fear we will find women shoehorned into standard provision, costs cut, specialist services closing, poorer outcomes, more offending, and, tragically, many more damaged lives.