News

UK: government scraps proposed women's 'community prisons' in new strategy to reduce female offending

The government has scrapped proposals to create “community prisons” for women as part of a delayed strategy aiming to combat female offending.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) had pledged to build and open five new facilities by the end of 2020, claiming they would allow women to be detained closer to home and maintain family links, but met widespread opposition.

The new strategy is moving “emphasis from custody to the community” and trying to bring the female prison population down. “We want to ensure that the public and judiciary have confidence in non-custodial sentences – such as effective community orders – which directly tackle the causes of reoffending, including alcohol or drug abuse,” said the MoJ.

We will be looking at what more we can do to emphasise that short custodial sentences should be viewed as a last resort.

Community sentences – such as unpaid work, addiction programmes and rehabilitation activities – have been shown to be cheaper and more effective than imprisonment.

But judges have lost confidence in the private companies charged with enforcing them by Conservative-led reforms that were branded a “mess” by MPs last week.

A Justice Committee report said convicts were being made to carry out “meaningless” unpaid work like moving mud from one pile to another in graveyards, or turning up to placements and finding no one there.

But the Ministry of Justice’s female offenders strategy, originally supposed to be published in early 2017, has put a focus on non-custodial sentences and community services.

Instead of women’s prisons, the government is to pilot five new residential women’s centres providing stable accommodation while they complete court orders and access to education, training and support.

The government cited statistics showing almost 60 per cent of female offenders have experienced domestic abuse – an estimated 24 to 31 per cent have dependent children and those in jail or on probation are more than twice as likely to suffer mental health issues as men.

Almost half of all female prisoners in England and Wales say they committed their offence to support the drug use of someone else, the Ministry of Justice said, while many more are substance abusers themselves.

The estimated annual cost of female offending is around £1.7bn, while 71 per cent of women jailed for under a year, and 56 per cent of all female convicts, go on to commit more crime.

There are currently more than 3,800 women in prisons in England and Wales, making up 4.7 per cent of the overall population.

Evidence clearly shows that putting women into prison can do more harm than good for society, failing to cut the cycle of reoffending and often exacerbating already difficult family circumstances,“ said David Gauke, the justice secretary.

While public protection will always be our priority, and prison must remain the only option in the most serious cases, I want that to be a last resort.

Mr Gauke, who is the fifth MP to hold the vital post in just three years, called for a shift in attitudes to how Britain deals with female offenders. He said: “This ultimately benefits everyone – offenders, their families and the wider community, as we see fewer victims and cut the cost of reoffending.

The government is investing £5m over two years in community services and early intervention programmes.

Local areas will have to bid for grants, and the government is relying on specialist organisations to design dedicated services.

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