The All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System (APPG), chaired by Baroness Corston, yesterday (18 January 2011) produced a second report on women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, which reveals bipartisan support for the closure of women's prisons and calls funding cuts a "challenge".
The report reveals that while many of Baroness Corston's original recommendations have been implemented, there are a number of outstanding concerns. The first Corston report's most significant recommendation to shut down women's prisons and replace them with a limited number of small, multi-functional custodial centres, is yet to be resolved. The APPG is also concerned that there are still too many women in prison for non-violent offences, and too many women being remanded into custody.
The previous government committed £15.6 million to invest in the provision of additional services for women at risk of offending. The money was aimed at creating centres providing 'one-stop-shop' support services and developing bail support to meet the needs of women. These centres have no dedicated funding beyond March 2011 and the APPG recommends that the progress they have achieved is sustained.
Baroness Corston said, "There have been many considerable achievements that improve the penal system for women, such as abolishing mandatory strip searching, as well as setting up very successful centres that divert women from custody.
"While a great deal has been achieved, there is more to be done and the coalition government has a responsibility to continue to support women in the penal system. If we are to rely on the one-stop-shop women's centres to play a key role in the diversion of women from custody and in giving women alternatives to reoffending, then these centres will need funding to continue".
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform that provides the secretariat to the APPG, said: "The recent green paper is a step in the right direction and the government has a real opportunity to secure future success for women to help keep women out of trouble and out of the penal system. We know that diverting women from custody reduces reoffending rates in a way that prison can't, making society safer for everyone. Some of these successful achievements should be replicated for men."
Baroness Corston highlights the positive work done by the Together Women project centres providing support to vulnerable women to tackle multiple and complex issues which trigger offending. Since April this year Together Women projects have already supported 806 women in Yorkshire and Humberside and 83 per cent of those women have achieved positive outcomes. The re-offending rate of women using Together Women support is just seven per cent compared to a national average of 36 per cent.
The report concludes by saying that the "scale of the problem we face remains significant" pointing out that women still account for 52 per cent of self-harm incidents in prison despite constituting only five per cent of the prison population.