In March 2006 Baroness Corston was asked by the Home Office to conduct a review of 'women in the criminal justice system who have particular vulnerabilities', prompted by the tragic suicides of six women at HMP Styal. The review culminated in the seminal Corston Report published a year later.
In the report, Baroness Corston asserted that ‘it is timely to bring about a radical change in the way we treat women throughout the whole of the criminal justice system and this must include not just those who offend but also those at risk of offending. This will require a radical new approach, treating women both holistically and individually – a woman-centred approach.' The recommendations of the Corston report represented a roadmap towards that vision.
15 years after that work began, we take a look at the progress that's been made, and what's left to do.
Baroness Jean Corston
I was dismayed to see so many women frequently sentenced for short periods of time for very minor offences, causing chaos and disruption to their lives and families, without any realistic chance of addressing the causes of their criminality.
Why the focus on women?
Previous inquiries and reports had identified the multiple vulnerabilities of many women offenders and the need for preventative community interventions, but one of the many reasons the Corston report is seen as groundbreaking was that it set out so clearly and compellingly the characteristics of women offenders and their often highly complex needs.
The report painted a vivid picture of women’s prisons filled with women who had been the victims of childhood trauma, had poor levels of education and employment, and who had experienced domestic violence, substance misuse and mental ill-health. It found that over half of women in prison were mothers and that their imprisonment had a hugely detrimental effect on their children, many of whom were taken into care. 'The effects on the 18,000 children every year whose mothers are sent to prison are so often nothing short of catastrophic,' said Baroness Corston in her foreword to the report. Today, it's estimated that each year up to 17,500 children are affected by maternal imprisonment, showing that the problem is still very much with us.
One of the main issues that the report identified as needing urgent reform was sentencing: too many women received short prison sentences - long enough to derail their lives but too brief to provide proper rehabilitative support.
Recommendations and implementation
Baroness Corston’s blueprint for ‘a radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach’ received cross-party support on its publication in 2007 and the Government in its formal response, published in December that year, agreed with 41 of the report's 43 recommendations.
The recommendations in the report were both visionary and practical, setting out a plan to divert women away from the criminal justice system by offering holistic community support and to radically reduce the number of women in prison. Notable recommendations, grouped by us into themes, were:
- The need for visible leadership and a joined-up approach: 'through the creation of an Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group for women who offend or are at risk of offending' and 'the creation of a Commission for women who offend or are at risk of offending'.
- The need for a holistic, woman-centred approach: through 'the extension of a network of women’s community centres, some with residential provision'.
- The need for support that's closer to home: through 'smaller, local custodial units which would replace prisons over time'.
1. The need for visible leadership and a joined-up approach
While some progress was made in the first few years after the report's publication, when we look at the last 15 years as a whole it is clear that there has been a lack of clear leadership from the top of government leading to inconsistency in policy direction. However, some recent developments have made progress in this area.
The Advisory Board on Female Offenders, set up in 2013, brings together key stakeholders to provide expert advice and challenge the government on its policies about women's offending. The board has cross-departmental representation, as well as advisors from women-specific services. However, the board holds an advisory role and does not have the ability to set policy.
Progress where we have seen it has relied on individual politicians supporting the reform agenda. For instance David Gauke, Justice Secretary from January 2018 to July 2019, took on board the lessons of the Corston report, strongly advocating a policy agenda of reducing the use of short sentences, citing the example of women who shoplift being given short sentences which blight their life chances on release:
'For women, going into custody often causes huge disruption to the lives of their families, especially dependent children.' He said he had 'taken great encouragement from the widespread support for an evidence-led, rehabilitative and humane agenda.'
Encouragingly, responsibility for women who offend or who are at risk of offending has begun to extend beyond the Ministry of Justice to health, housing, communities and local governance. In 2018, the Female Offender Strategy was published. Strongly influenced by the Corston report, it committed to a cross-departmental, joined-up approach.
A joined up approach
A plan for the implementation of the commitments in the Female Offender Strategy was finally delivered in the Concordat on women in or at risk of contact with the Criminal Justice System, released in January 2021. The Concordat sets out how government departments should work together nationally to identify and respond to the needs of women, and how outcomes can be improved at a local level, including through establishing a whole system approach to respond more collaboratively and effectively to the multiple and complex needs of women in or at risk of contact with the criminal justice system. One example of how it will achieve this is by nationally collecting and sharing data that broadens understanding of women’s experience in the criminal justice system.
These measures are welcome but ultimately fall short of the ‘strong, visible, effective and strategic national leadership at the highest levels’ that was called for in the Corston Report. The current policy framework lacks the vital element of a ministerial group similar to the Youth Justice Board which has wide-ranging powers, including to commission research and distribute grants.
2. The need for a holistic, woman-centred approach
One of the key recommendations of the Corston report was that women’s centres be developed, expanded and increasingly used as an alternative to imprisonment. Corston wanted most women with convictions to serve their sentence in the community, regularly attending these centres to access one-stop-shop support services, such as counselling and advice about housing and debt. The government enabled an expansion of the network of centres in those early years after the report's publication.
Today, despite a consensus that women's centres are the most effective way to reduce women's offending, funding for these services is still inadequate and precarious. There are around 50 women's centres in England and Wales which uphold the principles of holistic, gender-informed support but do not benefit from centralised funding or coordination. Working Chance strongly supports the 2020 report from the Women's Budget Group, The Case for Sustainable Funding for Women’s Centres, which makes a compelling case for a model of matched funding in which central and local government share the costs of delivering the objectives in the Government’s Female Offender Strategy.
The 2021 Concordat was a long time coming, but the cross-departmental agreement recognises that any responses to women who offend will only be truly effective if they are both trauma- and gender-informed, and commits its signatories to training frontline workforces as such. While there is still a long way to go to provide holistic support for women, the Concordat shows that progress is being made, with agencies committing to becoming trauma- and gender-informed by January 2022.
The Female Offender Strategy aimed to reduce the use of custody and to ensure that courts could have confidence in effective community sentences and support services which work for women. It allocated £5 million for investment in community provision, including £2 million for programmes to address domestic abuse, and proposed the piloting of five Residential Women’s Centres. The first of these centres will be located in South Wales with beds available for 12 women who would otherwise receive short prison sentences. The strategy also introduced new guidance for the police on dealing with vulnerable women and guidance on whole-system approaches.
3. The need for support that's close to home
The recommendation to replace existing women’s prisons with small custodial units was rejected by the Brown administration. A different approach has been taken in Scotland, where two community custody units for women have been trialled as part of a wider focus on rehabilitation and reintegration that prioritises keeping women close to their families. There are only 12 prisons for women in the whole of England, and none in Wales, meaning women are held on average 63 miles from their home, making contact with family and friends difficult. If the plan for Residential Women’s Centres outlined in the Female Offender Strategy was rolled out on a national scale, it could potentially be a good alternative to the rejected recommendation for small custodial units.
So much still to do
In the last 15 years, despite wholehearted support for the recommendations of the Corston report in the women’s criminal justice sector and a stream of policy commitments from successive governments, not nearly enough has been done to achieve the massive shifts needed in the approach to women with multiple complex needs who are at risk of criminalisation or who have already offended. The ever-mounting body of evidence about what works in preventing and reducing women's offending is not translating into a robust policy agenda that survives ministerial and administration changes. It's clear that change is incremental, depending on the objectives and beliefs of specific ministers or policymakers, and for sustained progress, we need to see a wholescale, explicit commitment across government to the the far-reaching, comprehensive action that Corston recommended.
In January 2021, the Ministry of Justice announced that it would be building 500 new prison places for women, a plan which flies in the face of the Female Offender Strategy's aim to reduce the number of women in prison - a proposal that is a very long way from David Gauke's 'evidence-led, rehabilitative and humane agenda'.
In 2006, Baroness Corston concluded that prison isn’t the right place for women who are not a risk to the public - yet in 2021, 77% of women who are in prison have been convicted of non-violent offences. Building new prison places for women does nothing to address the root causes of women's offending and is not a policy rooted in logic or evidence.
Employment is vital for women with convictions
Baroness Corston compiled evidence that made a strong case for women with convictions to be equipped with the skills and training they need to find jobs and to exit the revolving door of offending, but today women are three times less likely than men to find a job after release from prison.
She understood that when it comes to supporting women sent to prison into work, it’s about more than training. ‘Respect for one another, forming and maintaining relationships, developing self-confidence, simply being able to get along with people without conflict must come before numeracy and literacy skills.’ We agree that it takes more than a CV, and so at Working Chance, as well as providing interview and CV support, we offer workshops in vital skills like communication. Building confidence and self-esteem is at the core of our employability work, an essential step to becoming ready to look for work and succeed in a job.
I now have a job. Working Chance helped me gain confidence in my ability. I'm more assertive and found my voice when dealing with employers. I now can disclose with confidence, holding my head high in interviews.
Working Chance client
Working Chance has advocated for years that criminal justice policy-making must tackle the root causes of women’s offending rather than rely on prison. As the Corston report put it:
‘Problems that lead to offending - drug addiction, unemployment, unsuitable accommodation, debt - are all far more likely to be resolved through casework, support and treatment than by being incarcerated in prison.’
As the government plans for the women’s prison population to expand, we know that women from minoritised ethnicities will continue to be over-represented in prison and face double discrimination on release when they are saddled with a criminal record. The words of the Corston report still ring true today: women from Black and minority ethnic groups ‘face the same barriers in accessing services to help them alter their lives and in resettlement on release from prison as white women, but they are further disadvantaged by racial discrimination, stigma, isolation, cultural differences, language barriers and lack of employment skills.’ We see this borne out in the experiences of Working Chance clients, many of whom face multiple forms of discrimination when looking for work. 18% of the women’s prison population are from a minority ethnic group, compared to 14% of the general population, meaning that women from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are more likely to have to disclose a criminal record when applying for jobs. Studies show that British citizens from ethnic minority backgrounds have to send, on average, 60% more job applications to get a positive response from employers compared to their white counterparts.
Our Chief Executive, Natasha Finlayson, says:
“In the case of most women who commit crime, sending them to prison is counter-productive and doesn't make society safer. Custodial sentences have a disproportionate impact on children and families and support intergenerational cycles of offending. As Baroness Corston concluded, we need an approach across the criminal justice system which has at is heart early intervention to prevent women offending in the first place, an emphasis on community-based women-specific solutions, and we need to make custody as effective and decent as possible for those women who commit the most serious crimes and really do need to be there. The government's Female Offender Strategy and the Concordat are significant, long-awaited welcome steps in the right direction, but they must be underpinned by a robust, consistent drive from government to implement the 'radical new approach, treating women both holistically and individually' that Baroness Corston called for."
For women with convictions, finding work - let alone meaningful and sustainable work - is still a significant challenge, 15 years on. Had those years been spent implementing the recommendations of the Corston Report in earnest, this might not have been the case. The report remains a guiding light of good policy and practice that must not be ignored.
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