We spoke with Katy Swaine Williams, research and policy consultant, who has been working to support the development of a new problem-solving approach in London for women in contact with the criminal justice system.
Hi Katy, firstly can you give us your thoughts on how the courts and criminal justice system more widely currently deals with women and the impact this has on them?
In 2018 the Government released their Female Offender Strategy, which established an ambitious approach aiming to reduce the use of short prison sentences for women and increase the use of early intervention and diversion away from the criminal justice system. The Farmer Review for women was also a positive step. Two years on, the number of women in prison has been slowly declining, so to an extent it looks like the strategy is working; however progress is much too slow, and for those who are in prison the situation is dreadful, with self-harm rates increasing exponentially.
Critically, the strategy was not accompanied by sufficient investment in specialist women’s community services to allow the whole system approach it advocates to get off the ground everywhere, or to be sustainable in the long term. These services – which have a proven success rate in supporting women to reduce offending and improve outcomes - lurch from one funding crisis to the next, while the government has recently announced a £150m investment in 500 new women’s prison places. Sadly this suggests the government lacks confidence in its own strategy to reduce women’s imprisonment. It would be great if instead we could see the same level of investment at the front end of the system, supporting early intervention and diversion, and in wrap around community services to support non-custodial sentencing. This level of investment really could make a positive difference and trigger a permanent change in the response to women involved in offending – so that we can close prisons instead of building more places.
In terms of the courts, the pandemic has resulted in a huge backlog and delays in hearings, and of course much greater use of remote hearings. This has led to some practical challenges, like needing to ensure that vulnerable women in prison have someone present to support them during virtual hearings, to make sure they understand proceedings and are supported. Delays in proceedings mean women may spend longer in prison on remand or awaiting parole hearings, and the lack of family visits makes this particularly traumatic for all concerned.
Putting to one side the challenges posed by the pandemic, the way the courts operate is not gender-specific or trauma-informed, and this is a real barrier to progress. Despite a concerted effort by the National Probation Service, pre-sentence reports are often not completed; defence lawyers are operating on limited fees with very little time available; prosecutors and other professionals involved in court proceedings are not specialists in the drivers of women’s offending, and how trauma and other gender-specific considerations should be taken into account during the court process.
However examples of good practice exist - like the specialist domestic abuse courts in London and the Manchester’s Women’s Problem-Solving Court - from which we can learn a lot to improve the approach to women’s cases.
Tell us a little bit about the work that you’ve been doing in this area.
I have been working with the London Blueprint Delivery Group, which is a multi-agency strategic group convened by MOPAC with all the frontline criminal justice agencies operating in London, several of London’s local authorities, NHS England, and specialist third sector agencies including Advance, Women in Prison and Hibiscus Initiatives. In 2019 the group published a Blueprint for a Whole System Approach to Women in contact with the Criminal Justice System. This aimed to build on the agencies’ existing joint work with women involved in offending, which is co-commissioned by MOPAC and some London local authorities, in order to help to establish a permanent strategic change in the treatment of women in the CJS in London.
Part of the work to implement the Blueprint involves exploring the feasibility – and possible benefits - of establishing regional specialist women’s courts as part of an end-to-end specialist court process for women, modelled on London’s specialist domestic abuse courts. This would allow all agencies to concentrate their expertise and receive support from a specialist court co-ordinator, while women suspects and defendants would receive wrap around support from specialist women’s services.
Services like Advance, Women in Prison and Hibiscus Initiatives allow women to get practical help and feel supported in safe women-only spaces, with keyworker relationships that are based on unconditional positive regard. I saw this first-hand in my research for Advance on the response to mothers involved in offending who are survivors of domestic abuse. The keyworker relationship is best compared to that of a supportive and capable friend or family member, and can be transformative for women, some of whom may never have had such a relationship in their lives before. This can be critical in helping women to build self-esteem, find hope, and engage with other services such as housing, healthcare and children’s social care; it can also help by encouraging women to share important information about their circumstances – such as whether they have dependent children, and whether they are experiencing domestic abuse – all of which should be taken into account in decisions on prosecution, bail and sentencing.
We are in the early stages of discussions with HMCTS on developing this model for a possible pilot in London. We are also hoping to be able to establish a Women’s Problem Solving Court, and to pilot the use of Child Impact Assessments (following the model developed by Sarah Beresford with Merseyside Women’s Services Alliance) to ensure a specific focus on children’s interests when their mothers are sentenced.
It’s a challenging time to be looking to do something new, while everyone is trying to balance the working environment with the backdrop of the pandemic; but all partners are conscious that making the best use of scarce resources makes it all the more important to develop new ways of working together more effectively. There is equivalent work going on in many areas of the country despite the challenges everyone is facing amid the pandemic.
What is the biggest challenge or barrier to this work?
People’s time – everyone is so busy and resources are so stretched at the moment. Implementing new programmes and processes requires changing how people work, aligning organisations’ priorities, and having the time and headspace to work out how to do it. This is hard at the best of times, particularly for organisations involved in front line work, to have the time for practice development when they are so engaged in the day to day operations of the service – as well as chasing funding. For commissioners, resources are limited and are stretched by competing demands. But there is a huge pool of talent and passion there in both statutory and third sector agencies – and amongst the women themselves who go through the system and then go on to make positive use of that experience by acting as peer mentors and contributing to practice development. There is great potential for positive change.
What do you think the future is in relation to the approach to women in contact with the criminal justice system?
The Female Offender Strategy was a real milestone in policy development, because of the priority it gives to reducing women’s imprisonment and increasing early intervention and diversion. I hope this will remain the government consensus from the very top all the way down, and that we will start to see increased confidence and determination to back this approach and significantly reduce reliance on prison for women.
The new cross-government concordat on women in the criminal justice system is welcome, but we still need to overcome the difficulty of where government money is spent. Even within the limited resources allocated for justice, very large sums are spent on building prisons, while comparatively tiny amounts are invested in the community services needed to deliver change. There needs to be a significant increase in spending across government on specialist community services for women and girls involved in, or at risk of involvement in, the criminal justice system. Most of these women and girls have experienced domestic abuse and other forms of violence against women and girls (VAWG). This is often directly linked to their alleged offending, as I have found in my work - previously at Prison Reform Trust, and now at the Centre for Women’s Justice - to challenge the unjust criminalisation of survivors; so there is a huge overlap with local violence reduction and VAWG strategies.
A small amount of investment is also needed in local governance to drive joint work. Local government has a critical role to play in co-commissioning specialist services, which don’t cost the earth (far from it), but can make all the difference by supporting vulnerable women and girls to achieve positive changes in their lives, and those of their children.
I believe the future will see a transformation in the treatment of women and girls who experience VAWG, and of those who offend, or are at risk of doing so. Many people are working hard to achieve this, even though at times it can feel a bit like swimming against a strong current. My hope is that real change comes sooner rather than later.
For more information about Katy’s work, you can contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org