Lead Research Organisation: University of Kent
Department Name: Sch of Social Pol Sociology & Social Res


This project will apply the findings of an evaluation of Women's Community Services by Dr Polly Radcliffe and Gillian Hunter at ICPR. The aim of the project is to use our research findings to improve the sentencing of women offenders in the magistrates' courts of England and Wales.

The project will support the development of a problem-solving, multidisciplinary approach to sentencing non-violent women offenders in three probation trust areas in England. Women's Community Services (WCS) or One Stop Shops for women offenders were developed in order to provide alternatives to custody for women and to provide services for women considered at risk of offending. The imprisonment of non-violent women for short custodial sentences has increased in the UK in the last twenty years at a rate that far exceeds the increase in male imprisonment. Figures show that the vast majority of those women who were sentenced to immediate custody in 2011had committed non-violent offences. Most of these women received short sentences which are recognised as having the most damaging and disruptive impact on women's lives, in addition to failing to prevent their re-offending. A report by Baroness Corston that was published in 2007 made the case for the need for alternatives for custody for non-violent women offenders. The report galvanised a growing acknowledgement amongst people in public life and including penal reform organisations and the Women's Institute, that custodial sentences have a damaging effect on women whose needs are overwhelmingly complex and which often include histories of physical and sexual violence, poverty, mental illness and substance misuse.

One of the policies promoted in Corston's report was the extension of existing community services providing support to women offenders and those at risk of offending. Her report recommended the use of community sentences as the norm for non-violent women offenders and the raising of awareness amongst magistrates regarding the availability of women specific services where they exist. Since 2009 a combination of Ministry of Justice and charitable funds has been made available the extension of this network of women's community services and although future funding remains uncertain, funding was announced in January 2012 for 31 services.

The findings from our evaluation, that we would like to apply in this project show that women's community services run by voluntary sector partnerships offer invaluable holistic services to women offenders with complex needs. Our study has found that these services need to work effectively in partnership with statutory criminal justice agencies in order to host community sentences for women offenders. We found that, even in areas where they exist and even where services had made efforts to inform magistrates of their existence, magistrates were often not aware of the services they provide. One reason for this is that magistrates are very part time and are volunteers and may see few women offenders in the course of a year. We found that where they know about these services, magistrates often do not consider these services as viable alternatives to custodial sentences. Our findings suggest that there is a need to improve communication and multidisciplinary working in order to improve sentencing outcomes for non-violent women and to make the best use of local women-specific services. This project will encourage practitioners on the ground to think through the practicalities and logistics of bringing about multidisciplinary sentencing conferences that would take place at designated sessions. It would ask probation staff to consider the sorts of recommendations they make for sentences and would include the reviewing of sentences for non-violent women offenders. The project would aid communication between professionals and create a pool of expertise amongst magistrates about the most effective sentencing practices for non-violent women offenders.

Planned Impact

The aim of the project is to improve the consistency and quality of sentencing of non-violent women offenders in magistrates courts in England and Wales by improving awareness of services, joint decision making processes and reviewing of sentences. Beneficiaries of this Knowledge Exchange Scheme include sentencers, court advisors, probation staff, women's community services and policy makers.

Research shows that magistrates are often unaware of the range of services and disposals in the community for women offenders. Probation staff and court advisors who make recommendations in pre-sentence reports and make information about local services available to magistrates may not always include the range of community services available to women offenders and how they can be used. Magistrates often do not know the impact of accessing community services for women offenders with complex needs. This project will pilot locally-based systems of communication and decision making between agencies, promoting the use of services for women that will address their complex needs and reviewing these decisions.

Learnings from the project about how to conduct a problem solving approach to the sentencing of non-violent women offenders will be documented in an online guide for magistrates, court advisors and probation staff that will be disseminated via a recently developed learning portal.

The project does not involve huge investments in infrastructure but instead will involve criminal justice agencies sharing information and working jointly to use available women specific services to address the complex problems that lie behind much of women's offending. Learnings from the project have the potential to increase the effectiveness of public services and ultimately to reduce the imprisonment of non-violent women offenders.

By making sentencers more aware of the availability of women specific services and diverting women to women's community services which provide much needed services for women with complex needs, the project has the potential to enable women to desist from crime.


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