Examining the plight of women in the criminal justice system

A long way from home - coverOn behalf of the Police and Crime Committee I launched a major report this week asking for more women offenders to be kept out of jail and for London to get more women’s centres to give them support in the community.

The investigation started while I was deputy chair of the Committee, and we visited Downview prison to speak to women in prison – the closest to London after Holloway Prison was shut but still more than an hour and half’s journey from City Hall.

We also discussed the issues with women offenders who are being helped by the charity Revolving Doors about the problems they face and the support they need to stop offending and sort out their lives. Housing problems and lack of support on release were huge issues, with many short sentences just long enough for women to lose their homes and children and cause huge disruption and heartache that lead to higher risks and harm.

Shockingly we found that only a tiny fraction of women are sent to jail for violent offences, with most of the crimes committed linked closely to poverty and previous abuse, as well as drug problems, including coercive relationships where women are committing crime to support someone else’s dependence on drugs.

Read more about our findings here: A long way from home

The number of women offenders in London is small and they are mostly responsible for low-level offences such as theft, common assault and TV licence evasion.

The report shows that having specialist women’s centres to support offenders in the community help to address the causes of offending and have a big impact on reoffending. The provision of such centres across London falls way short of demand.

Courts are often reluctant to use other sentences such as community orders because they are not confident the services needed to support these sentences will be available. Sentencing hearings are often rushed, with women not always having the right advocacy or information to give the judge about their family and housing situation and the risks a prison sentence would pose to them and others.

Women sentenced to prison by the London courts do not stay in London. Following the closure of HMP Holloway in July 2016, they are placed in prisons such as HMP Downview, HMP Bronzefield, and HMP Send, all just outside London, or prisons further away.

This creates challenges not only for these women in maintaining family and community ties, but for the services that are there to help. In our investigation, we spoke with support services and charities who are based within reach of Holloway but struggle to reach prisoners outside London and offer them the right support, particularly when their sentences are short.

London has only two ‘one-stop-shop’ women’s centres, which provide a single access point to services specifically for offenders and women at risk of offending. And access to this provision depends on where a person lives. There are eleven boroughs where women offenders do not have access to these women’s centres.

The report recommends the Mayor use his powers and influence to ensure:

  • The number of women in London who are sent to prison for low-level and non-violent crime is reduced
  • Courts have the confidence to use alternative sentences to custody including community sentences
  • Women offenders can continue any education and skills training they have begun in prisons on their release
  • Women offenders, and those at risk of offending, have access to at least one more women’s centre in London – we also asked that the commitment to having a women’s building created on the site of Holloway prison when it is redeveloped is kept.

At the launch of the report I said:

“Most of the crimes in London are committed by men, but the women who commit crimes, which are mainly of a much less serious nature, are getting badly treated by the justice system.

“Women prisoners from London are sent miles away, cutting them off from their family and support system, which harms their rehabilitation and risks damaging them further.

“Many of these women are not a threat to the safety of others and society in general, so shouldn’t be behind bars. London needs at least one more women’s centre specifically for offenders to provide more of the support that these women and their families need to get their lives back on track.

“The Government’s new strategy on female offenders presents a new opportunity. We are calling on the Mayor to lead the way, and work with Government to make sure that London is set up to make a difference to the lives of women offenders.”