Women In The Criminal Justice System: Why do women need specialist support?


“This is not about treating women more favourably or implying that they are less culpable. It is about recognising that women face very different hurdles from men in their journey towards a law-abiding life” – Sir Alan Beith MP, Chair of the Committee, Justice Select Committee Report

Open Community Justice offers support to women only across Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. We have identified several reasons for the need for a specialist service for women. 

  • Prior lack of women-only support - A previous lack of specific provision for women has resulted in a lack of knowledge amongst criminal justice practitioners.

  • Reasons for offending - The causes of offending amongst women generally differ from that of men’s. They are often related to a history of trauma, mental health, substance misuse, relationships, parental responsibilities (often as single parents), finance & debt or housing insecurity. A specialist women’s support service takes these varying factors into consideration and works with women to address the root causes of offending behaviour.

  • Women as a minority - Women make up a minority percentage of people involved in the criminal justice system; as a result this increases the chance of women not being viewed or treated as a priority in policy and approaches to rehabilitation. Therefore a female-centered approach is required that takes into account particular issues experienced by women.  

  • Women as primary/sole carers of children - The Corston Report identified that there are twice as many female single parents than men in prison. Additionally, 80% of women in custody have children/dependents under the age of 18. Upon release, women may have lost their homes which significantly impacts the stability of their family, further increasing the risk of re-offending. Specialist support takes these female-centered factors into account when offering support to women following an offence.

  • Domestic & Sexual Abuse - ‘Previous research by the charity Women in Prison shows 79% per cent of the women who use their services have experienced domestic violence or sexual abuse’ – May Bulman, The Independent. Data records of Open Community Justice Work show that around 90% of women we have supported have experienced domestic or sexual violence in their lifetime. Therefore, a specialist service is required that understands how a history of domestic and sexual abuse can impact behaviour amongst women in the criminal justice system.

  • Relationships - The Prison Reform Trust found that more women than men who have been supervised by probation had issues concerning a relationship (62% vs 40%). Additionally, they found that 35% of women offenders had a criminal partner.  

  • Finance - A Cabinet Office study discovered that 28% of women’s crimes were related to finance, compared to 20% of men.

  • Trafficking/Coercion - Interviews with foreign national women in prison discovered that four in ten women were victims of trafficking, the majority of whom had been coerced into committing offences.

Recognition of the importance of women-specific services in the justice system is reflected in Section 10 of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014, which requires the Secretary of State for Justice to ensure that contracts with supervision and rehabilitation services consider and identify services to address the particular needs of women in accordance with the equality duty.

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