Thousands of women arrested unnecessarily each year, finds APPG

By agency reporter
September 29, 2020

Thousands of women in distress are being arrested unnecessarily each year instead of being given the help and support they need, an influential cross-party panel of MPs and peers has found.

In a new briefing, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Women in the Penal System reveals how police resources are being wasted on arresting women inappropriately, holding them in custody and releasing them without charge.

The APPG reached its conclusions after receiving original and detailed evidence from five police forces in England and Wales, who provided anonymised data on more than 600 arrests of women. This valuable resource revealed that 40 per cent of arrests resulted in no further action. Nationwide, police forces made almost 100,000 arrests of women during the year ending March 2019.

The findings are outlined in the second briefing from the APPG’s inquiry into arrests of women. Since May 2019, the APPG has been investigating what can be done to reduce arrests in England and Wales and stem the flow of women into the criminal justice system.

Baroness Corston, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, said: “Detailed evidence from five police forces has enabled our inquiry to shed more light than ever before on the extent to which women are brought into the criminal justice system unnecessarily.

”Although arrests have fallen slightly in recent years, the evidence shows that there is still much to do to ensure that women get the support they need without being criminalised. Our briefing sets out a way forward.”

Jackie Doyle-Price, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, said: “The government’s female offender strategy recognises the challenges that many women face and outlines the clear benefits of intervening early to help keep them out of the criminal justice system. Now we need to see more progress on the ground.

“Diverting women to support services instead of arresting them is a smarter use of police resources that helps to reduce crime.”

Debbie Abrahams, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, said: “Our inquiry found several examples of good practice where police forces were working closely with local women’s centres to guide women away from crime.

“It is time to build on this success and make sure that women in other areas of the country can access services that will help them to lead happier and healthier lives.”

The APPG found numerous examples of women being arrested for alleged non-violent offences. They included a woman who was arrested for begging outside a supermarket. Another woman was arrested after she walked into a main road repeatedly. A third, who was believed to be drunk and known to have mental health problems, was arrested for trespassing on railway property.

The briefing states that women who are drunk, behaving badly or putting themselves at risk do not need to be arrested. Often, police are being asked to deal with problems that other public services have failed to resolve, such as drug and alcohol addiction, mental ill-health and homelessness.

“If women do need support”, the briefing states, “arresting them for begging or shop theft will not tackle underlying issues causing poverty and may even drive women further into the criminal justice system if they end up with fines which they have no means to pay.”

Some of the evidence submitted to the APPG related to arrests of women for alleged violent offences, including arrests in connection to suspected domestic abuse incidents.

The briefing reveals that, for too many women, contact with the police results in their criminalisation rather than a recognition that they might be victims of domestic abuse. The evidence provided by the five forces included details of cases where women had contacted the police to report a domestic incident but ended up being arrested themselves, and then released with no further action.

The APPG was able to consider more information about this after the Howard League for Penal Reform asked one force to analyse its data on arrests of women and girls over a two-year period. It emerged that almost three-quarters of the women arrested had previously come to the attention of the police as victims of violence or sexual violence. More than half of them had been victims of domestic abuse.

The briefing states: “Forces should investigate whether the duty to take positive action in alleged domestic violence incidents is unnecessarily driving up arrests of women. Officers do not have to arrest and can take alternative positive action, such as finding somewhere safe for the woman to go, where she is not in the same house as the other party.

“If officers arrive at the scene and have no or limited knowledge of the background to the incident, they may arrest women when it is not necessary or proportionate. An unnecessary arrest can be distressing and damaging for women and it is important that officers have the skills to make the right decision quickly.”

The briefing reveals that Black, Asian and ethnic minority women are more than twice as likely to be arrested as white women, but less likely to be charged following arrest. It states that “greater challenge” to prevent unnecessary and inappropriate arrests would help to prevent their disproportionate criminalisation. The briefing calls for more specialist services for these women and secure funding to ensure they are sustainable.

The APPG found examples of good practice where forces were diverting women who needed support, without arresting them first. But there were too many police force areas where this was not happening.

The APPG found that women’s centres were key in delivering gender-specific services for women, but provision was a “postcode lottery”. Police forces such as Avon and Somerset, Surrey, Thames Valley and West Yorkshire had developed close links with their local women’s centres and were diverting women there for assessment and support. But, in some areas of the country, there were either no local women’s centres or police officers were unaware of the services offered.

The briefing recommends that all forces should adopt a set of principles for policing women, taking into account the factors that bring women into contact with the police and preventing criminalisation when it is unnecessary and inappropriate.

The APPG receives administrative and research support from the Howard League for Penal Reform.

* Read Arresting the entry of women into the criminal justice system: Briefing Two here

* Howard League for Penal Reform https://howardleague.org/

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