Mitigating the harms of criminal justice

Laurel Townhead
Thursday, 6 March 2014

The previous post in this series highlighted the potential conflict between focussing our efforts on reforming the criminal justice system or aiming for wider social transformation. There is an additional task and that is mitigating the harm the criminal justice system (CJS) causes.  Women in Prison’s experience of doing this for thirty years has given us an insight into both the reform needed in the CJS and the transformation needed in the approach to women especially those who are criminalised. 

The work done to mitigate the harm the criminal justice system causes to women has lessons for those working for reform and transformation. This work can tell us about what transformation should be founded on. We need to be clear about the reasons upon which we base our call for transformation and which shape our vision of an alternative.  A programme of rehabilitation “transformation” is underway. This government programme of transformation is embedded in the CJS and doesn’t aim to downsize criminal justice in the way we are exploring. As a result I fear that this transformation (with marketisation as a central plank) will be detrimental to attempts to reform, transform and mitigate the CJS’s harms.

So what does it mean to try and mitigate the harm the CJS does to women caught up in it?  It means providing independent support to women to avoid the system and where that is not possible to survive it and exit it. This is not about working against the criminal justice system. But it is also not about working for it. It is about working for and with women. If we take each individual woman as our starting point it is clear that there is much that can be done to prevent further offending behaviour but very little of that comes from the criminal justice system. 

Women-centred action

Being women-centred in your thinking and action is key to mitigating the harm the criminal justice system causes and key to the transformation that is needed.  It means asking not what needs to be done to a woman but what she can do and what she wants to do and how you can provide the support she needs to achieve this. Rarely (if ever) will locking her up be the answer. Indeed, we question if locking someone up for punishment is ever an appropriate response (containment for public safety may be necessary but this is not the reason that most women are incarcerated as the earlier post on why women are in prison showed). 

Unsurprisingly, each of the 50 members of Women’s Breakout working with women to mitigate CJS harm do so in different ways, but all come from a starting point of providing a women-centred service. These services are wide ranging including: budgeting, healthy relationships, prostitution exiting, substance misuse, self esteem, domestic violence, parenting…in short supporting women in every aspect of their lives.  It is as much about how we work as about what we provide and an individualised, women-centred approach is core. 

From action to abandonment

Unsurprisingly, the most successful programmes are those that involve building a relationship with a woman and working with her to achieve the changes she wants to make. Women in Prison's BME Through the Gate project provided intensive one-to-one support to 43 women only one of whom had been reconvicted six months after the end of the project. It is cost effective one social return on investment study found that for every pound invested in support–focused alternatives to prison, £14 worth of social value is generated over 10 years.

Surprisingly, these programmes are under threat (although sadly in the current political climate this is unsurprising too). There was a period of investment in diversionary work with women following the Corston report. However, the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme has no specific contracting for women and as this gathers pace, women centred services are at risk of disappearing and the women they support left once more to the excesses of the CJS. Women are harmed by a CJS designed for men and then the services that support them are disadvantaged in an evidence/measurement culture because the numbers of women they work with are small.  Another part of the transformation that is needed is a perspective shift to a culture that values self-assessed progress and not cost effectiveness and standards of effectiveness that fail to put women first. 

Transforming services

Impacts like a reduction in reoffending and saving public money are very persuasive arguments for this work – but they are not the motivating force for support services nor for the women themselves. Women’s services like ours and others are motivated by ensuring that women get the chance to address the abuse, trauma and inequality they experience. And I believe it is this that should inform our vision of a transformed response to the harm women experience. For example, if levels of gender-based violence were reduced, if more women could access support and find safety then I have no doubt that women’s involvement in the criminal justice system would fall.

This view is not new, it was clearly outlined in the Corston Report that the radical change needed should focus on support and diversion because there was no good reason for the vast majority of women to be criminalised. One of the boldest recommendations, that has sadly been quietly shelved, was to move responsibility for managing criminalised women from the Ministry of Justice to the Department for Communities and Local Government. Because, as we are exploring in Justice Matters for Women, the criminal justice system need have no place in the lives of most women branded as “offenders” if there was adequate support in the community. 

Is it time to return to this recommendation again and ask why this is viewed as a criminal justice issue when it could more effectively be addressed as a social justice issue?

Laurel Townhead is Policy and Campaigns Manager at Women in Prison

Related items

Visit the Justice Matters for Women project page for other articles in this series and to register for our workshop event on 26 March 2014.