Are we failing female offenders?

A decade or so ago I worked at the Fawcett Society, a charity that campaigns for gender equality, leading their work to improve the criminal justice system for women who offend. It was a topical issue – Baroness Corston was in the process of conducting her government-sponsored review on this issue – and there was an emerging political consensus that the justice system simply did not work well enough for women. It was broadly agreed that prison, and particularly short prison sentences, were overused, with serious effects on the women’s own wellbeing as well as that of their families.

I was reminded of this recently by the publication of figures that set out what women go to prison for and the length of their sentences. They make depressing reading. Not only has the number of women in prison remained broadly stable in recent years – bumping along at around 4,000 – but many are still receiving short sentences that do little to prevent reoffending while causing huge damage to them and their families. Little progress appears to have been made.

The reasons why thousands of women go to prison each year for non-violent offences are unclear, and certainly need more scrutiny. But surely some of the thousands of women who go to prison for six months or less could instead serve a community sentence with restorative justice at its heart? This would benefit victims – who get little from seeing the offender go to prison – and help to tackle reoffending.

This coincides with thinking that we are currently doing at the RJC about the use of restorative justice with female offenders. There is no evidence to suggest that female offenders are less likely than their male counterparts to benefit from restorative justice if they take part. Indeed there are indications that it may even be more effective. But there is a perception among practitioners and researchers that female offenders may be less likely than might be expected to participate.

In the absence of reliable national data on the take up of restorative justice it is difficult to substantiate this perception. So, to explore this we’ve launched a short research project, funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, which will report in March 2016. It will explore what could be done to better enable – or encourage - female offenders to participate in restorative justice and ensure that those who do take part have a positive experience. Building on previous work in this area, this project will look at key entry routes into restorative justice across the justice system and explore what barriers there are to women’s participation and what could be done to address them.

Restorative justice works. If women offenders are being denied access to it for any reason this is not only unfair but also impacts on the effectiveness of the justice system. This project will help us to explore and address this, but we’d also like to know what you think. Do you think that women offenders are less likely to access restorative justice? If so, why? Please let us know.