29 Jun Reforming female prisons will break the cycle of crime: my work shows this
I had mixed emotions this week with the publication of the female offender strategy, the culmination of two years’ hard work by me and the excellent civil servants in the Ministry of Justice who supported me. A large part of me wished I was still in post to unveil it, but issues around Brexit and the crucial vote on parliamentary oversight this month meant that I could not in all conscience remain part of this government. It may be out of fashion with some current ministers, but many others still believe collective responsibility in government is important.
I was proud of the central thrust of the strategy and its potential to transform our approach to women’s justice. We are on the right path to locking up fewer women and cutting crime. But completing the transformation depends on proper funding.
On visits to women’s prisons up and down the country, I was struck by how most of the women who get caught up in our criminal justice system are among the poorest and most vulnerable. Just look at the figures – 57% of women in prison have suffered domestic abuse; 49% report needing help for mental health problems, 48% said they had committed their offence to support someone else’s drug use and 24% to 31% have dependent children. Many end up in prison for relatively minor offences. Remarkably, a few each year, usually among the poorest, are there because they have not bought a TV licence. Short sentences, especially for women, are often pointless and unnecessary, and just make society look vindictive. There are better ways of dealing with women offenders and I’m delighted that the MoJ is working towards ending the practice of imprisoning women for short periods.
We invested almost two years exploring what works, working with the dedicated people and organisations that have spent decades supporting these women. So we know what is needed. And the MoJ is right to commit to a holistic approach, empowering local areas to come up with local solutions. In time, we should go further and make police and crime commissioners accountable for women offenders. But one deep disappointment is that the best alternative to imprisonment – a network of women’s community residential centres – has not yet been properly funded.
We know that these centres help women become responsible citizens, support their families, and – because they take a holistic approach – get results. We need more of them. For example, there is little prison space near London, so women from the capital who are locked up are often taken long distances. All too often, this means that their children turn to crime and the evidence shows that keeping mothers close to their children and families helps to break the cycle.
Establishing these centres will only take £20m initially – peanuts in the overall picture of government spending and less than 0.3% of annual MoJ expenditure. They would be a powerful symbol of “tackling the burning injustices” which the prime minister so eloquently expressed in Downing Street after she took office. For those who think £20m is still too much for a so-called “soft option”, I would say that this initiative would more than pay for itself. It would ultimately enable us to close a women’s prison. The approach could be extended to male prisoners from similarly abusive backgrounds, significantly reducing the prison estate. It also aims to break the cycle of crime which costs our country billions each year.
My hope is that the current justice secretary, David Gauke, will secure the money in the next spending review. He should also explore new funding models, using government funds to leverage philanthropic investment from other sectors. Not-for-profit and community organisations should be encouraged to set up centres, providing capital investment, with government guaranteeing subsequent running costs. Cooperative social funding models like this have the potential to remove the need for inefficient and expensive private finance initiatives.
If we find the funds to implement this strategy properly, it will transform criminal justice in our country – not just for women but for men and young people as well.
(This article was featured in the online edition of The Guardian –https://www.theguardian.com/…/residential-centres-women-pri…)