The Whole Systems Approach adopted in Sussex centres on a multi-agency approach to addressing the complex needs of women who are in contact with the justice system by supporting them to access relevant services.

Sam Sanderson, Project Manager at Sussex Criminal Justice Board (SCJB) and Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), told us about their Whole Systems Approach (WSA) project focusing on women in the Criminal Justice System (CJS).

The project centres on a multi-agency approach to addressing the complex needs of often the most vulnerable and disadvantaged women in society being processed through the CJS. The aim of the project is to use existing resources differently to target support more efficiently, avoiding gaps or duplication in service provision and supporting women to access provision successfully so that they can turn their lives around. 

Whole Systems Approach (WSA)

The WSA to women offenders is to assess need at first contact with the CJS and to provide holistic support throughout her justice journey. Women’s offending generates significant fiscal, economic and social costs well beyond the direct costs to the CJS. The WSA model consolidates agencies merging together to use existing resources more effectively, to share information and to coordinate women’s access to services, improving the chances of successful outcomes in and out of the CJS.

This project focuses on three core areas of the Criminal Justice System that impacts women who offend:

  • At the point of contact with police – to establish an enhanced pan-Sussex Women’s Diversionary project incorporating Out of Court Disposals (OOCD) and Voluntary Attendance Suites (VAS) and also expand the diversion processes at an early stage prior to arrest, with police making key decisions about disposals available. It is hoped this will reduce the number of women going to court and target resources to address women’s needs at an early preventative stage;
  • Post-charge – to consolidate resources and have a county-wide resource base accessible to all sectors of the CJS particularly at court stage, thus targeting resources for complex and high need women;
  • Post-release – to promote service delivery and enhance communication amongst women’s prisons; to set up a mentoring system to bridge the link between custody and community; and to target support for complex and vulnerable women offenders more effectively and reduce recall rates.

The Women’s Steps to Change Team (WSCT) will be delivering a new and enhanced triage and diversion scheme offered exclusively to women (suitable for diversion) who enter the CJS. Government funding was secured by the Sussex PCC and Sussex Criminal Justice Board (SCJB) to carry out this innovative scheme in Sussex.

Emerging Futures, a community interest company, will be delivering the service for the WSA model which seeks to support women offenders by assessing their individual needs, offering appropriate assistance with the aim of reducing future reoffending.

How it has helped women

To date, Sam says they have had 74 referrals and the WSCT are working actively to engage all these women into appropriate services locally to seek help around their specific complex vulnerabilities.

Sam described the new service as innovative as “we have expanded the concept of diversion beyond early prevention and are now expanding to encapsulate all stages of the Criminal Justice System”. In one example, the WSCT saw a woman on a Friday in custody, she was in crisis and there were concerns about her safety and well-being. The team were proactive in making contact with a number of housing providers. Eventually, they drove her to a temporary housing placement in Crawley. On Monday, the WSCT were able to inform the woman’s probation team and steps were taken to find her more suitable accommodation and avert a risky situation from escalating. In another example, the WSCT met with a woman in custody. Following their in-depth assessment, steps were taken to link her in with a local substance misuse agency. This woman was then going to court. The WSCT were able to keep the police investigation team updated on progress and also inform the court of progress. This has the potential to ensure a fuller picture is emerging about women’s motivation to engage with local partnership agencies. This in turn could see courts taking a different approach to custody if such interventions can be more joint up between agencies. 

The future

Sam also referenced a new initiative which would be part of the WSA that is still in its earliest days. She wants to establish a bespoke women’s residential service that will provide support through a wrap-around service that will be truly responsive to the complex needs of women. This is especially important for when women come out of custody or for homeless women going through the CJS. It would also provide a point of contact for the delivery of several services for families, social services for example. Sam said that they have three services on board so far who are willing to deliver. This service compliments what the Ministry of Justice would like to see from WSA. With regards to this work, Sam says that they are “ahead of the game” and that through the establishment of this initiative they could go on to help more people, not just women, and expand their scope of service user.

Sam said the overall aim of the WSA is about setting up a “mechanism of prevention” when thinking about the justice system. Sam also acknowledged that in their evaluation, whilst reducing reoffending is key, reducing arrests is equally as important. Overall and ideally, it is about ensuring individuals have the tools needed so that they do not come into contact with the CJS at all. However, where women do need to enter and exit the CJS, then ensuring we are identifying and addressing their motivation to seek help is key to ensuring they are on the right pathway to the process of rehabilitation. Sam reflected that “prevention can come at all stages of the CJS: at early stages to divert away from the CJS, at the point of assessment to ensure help is being sought by women at an early stage, and at the point of sentencing to ensure a tailor made sentencing disposal that focuses on motivation to change and addresses complexities”.  

Bespoke and holistic services

Another key aspect of the WSA in Sussex is the “one-stop shop” approach that Sam believes is really important, although not a new concept– it is about providing bespoke and holistic services that bring all local partners together. Sam says, “this is crucial because you have various partners involved, working often with the same clients on a range of issues”. Therefore, “working collaboratively, sharing information and creating these links is imperative”. Sam added that there is also a need for co-commissioning as it is important to work on how partners collaborate to ultimately address the needs of service users better and truly provide a whole systems approach to female offending.

Outside of her work, Sam references other initiatives such as the Amber Project in Littlehampton that deals with domestic violence at the earliest stages and takes a family approach, perceiving it to be unique.

She also said that the one-stop shop approach that they employ has not been “fully grasped” or explored yet, even though it is not a new way to approach work. This area of work brings a more holistic approach for women that need support, allows agencies to work more effectively, and over time could bring cost savings as more shared resources are allocated to working with this cohort.

Sam also believes the Ministry of Justice are bringing all different areas involved in the WSA for women’s justice together so that they can share their experiences and work with each other. “It would also allow for a forum of thinking about the wider strategic approaches in conjunction with tailoring to localities”. This shared learning should be facilitated and encouraged more widely across the CJS and agencies encouraged to work together, not in silos.

If you want to find out more about Sam’s work, you can contact her via


This case study was compiled and edited by Jaskirat Mann in 2018

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