Crime commissioner backs 'residential centres' plan for female offenders

Dame Vera Baird.
Dame Vera Baird.

Crime commissioner Vera Baird says she is backing plans to set up at least five residential centres for women offenders in a pilot scheme.

The Government's strategy for dealing with female offenders, published today, has shelved proposals to create five new community prisons for women, with the strategy having been re-written reportedly due to budget constraints.

Justice Secretary David Gauke has pledged instead to set up at least five residential centres for women in a pilot scheme.

The move is part of plans to try to reduce the number of female offenders serving short jail terms.

In the foreword to the strategy, Mr 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.

He said: "There is persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences are less effective in reducing re-offending than community orders.

"Short sentences generate churn which is a major driver of instability in our prisons and they do not provide sufficient time for rehabilitative activity.

"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."

Police and crime commissioner for Northumbria Dame Vera Baird says she approves of the plans, while also calling on the Government to invest money in the scheme.

Dame Vera said: “Female offenders are some of the most vulnerable members of society; they often have complex needs and may live with mental health issues, substance use, domestic abuse, homelessness, poor education and unemployment.

“Therefore, I welcome the strategy’s focus on diverting women from custody and, instead, supporting them in the community – which offers better public protection at a fraction of the cost of prisons.

“Working with women offenders at the earliest stage has been shown to reduce re-offending rates, reduce drug and alcohol use, and improve emotional and mental health.

"Having access to the right support services enables female offenders to turn their lives around.

“However, for the strategy to achieve its intentions it needs to be properly funded.

"The Ministry of Justice have handed back £50million 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.

As APCC Victims Lead, I also want to see:

· a more co-ordinated approach across Government;

· proper leadership;

· a published action plan with key dates for implementation of the various commitments;

· clarity around who should lead the many local initiatives it proposes.

"It is only by doing all of these things will we reduce the numbers of women prosecuted and going to prison, thereby both saving huge amounts of Government funding on expensive prisons and also tackling the intergenerational impact of mothers being detained.”