Our criminal justice system is in need of urgent and transformative change to better support and protect women. However, despite the government’s claims, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will not make women safer. In fact, the Bill – if passed in its current form – will adversely impact women, particularly racially minoritised women who are already overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
Many of the measures proposed in the Bill will have harmful long-term consequences for women. As organisations that support women, we have witnessed first-hand the challenges faced by women who come into contact with the criminal justice system. In many cases, women’s offending is driven by multiple disadvantages, such as low income, lack of social support, violence and abuse, mental ill-health, or harmful substance use. More than half of women in prison experienced abuse as a child, while 63% experienced domestic violence as adults. We believe the solution lies in providing women with support in the community, rather than the approach of the Bill, which focuses on more wide-reaching and harsher punishment.
The Bill’s disproportionate measures will only risk more women being arrested and convicted for simply exercising their rights. Examples include criminalising aspects of protests, trespassing for Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities, and increasing policing and surveillance of minoritised groups. The proposed new cautions system will put more women at risk of having criminal records for what may be minor mistakes. We are also concerned by the impact on migrant women, who will be additionally faced with potential deportation under Article 82 on 'Foreign Offenders'.
Tougher custodial and community sentences will lead to longer sentences, increased prison populations, and generally more women being swept into a punitive system. There is no reliable evidence that longer and tougher sentences will reduce crime and reoffending, and in fact, research suggests otherwise. Measures we know are effective include support in the community that has the power to prevent crime in the first place.
The Bill undermines the government’s own Female Offender Strategy, which aims to reduce the number of women in custody. The majority of women in prison are there for non-violent offences, which can be better addressed outside custody. Prison sentences have been shown to exacerbate women’s vulnerabilities and disadvantages, leaving many women worse off than when they committed an offence. Instead of rehabilitating women, prisons only further harm women, as reflected by the mental health crisis in women’s prisons and rise in self-harm cases in the women’s estate. There were 11,988 self-harm incidents in women’s prisons in the year up to December 2020, with a 13% increase in the rate of self-harm incidents on the previous year. It is clear that harsher punishments and increased prison populations will only further harm women who are criminalised.
As more women are convicted, more women will be forced to bear the burden of criminal records, with lifelong consequences. Women with convictions face social stigma and barriers to employment which make it challenging to rebuild their lives and break the cycle of criminalisation. Although women are less likely to have a criminal record than men, women are almost twice as likely as men to have their criminal records disclosed on a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check. This is partly because women are overrepresented in professions that require enhanced DBS checks, such as social work, care work, nursing, childcare, and education.
Although the Bill has some positive proposals, such as making criminal records disclosable for a shorter period of time, the changes would not apply to everyone and around two thirds of people sentenced to more than 4 years will not benefit from this at all. The Bill therefore presents a missed opportunity to eliminate discrimination that results from criminal convictions. Because criminal records discrimination disproportionately affects women, without question, the Bill in its current form will further entrench gender inequality.
At the same time, the Bill does little to offer women who are victims of violence any real justice. The Bill's focus on prosecution and punishment fails to address or resolve the root causes of violence against women and girls. Instead of enabling opportunities and resources to address the complex causes of violence against women and girls, the Bill adds further barriers to justice for survivors of violence and abuse. We urgently need a shift from the punitive approach championed by the Bill towards restorative and transformative justice that will actually make women safer.
Overall, we find that the Bill expands policing and sentencing powers in an already punitive system that will continue to harm women and minoritised groups. We strongly oppose the passage of the Bill in its current state on those grounds.
We call on the government to:
- Remove provisions in the Bill that will criminalise protests and trespassing, which affect minoritised and marginalised women;
- Remove provisions in the Bill that will lead to longer sentences and remove the proposed ending of automatic halfway release in custody, which would lead to women being imprisoned for longer;
- Remove provisions in the Bill that will entrench racial inequality across policing and sentencing, including threat of deportation for migrant women;
- End lifetime disclosure of convictions for all crimes and develop a criminal records regime that centres on discretionary disclosure with opportunity for appeal to ensure that women are able to rebuild their lives after a criminal conviction;
- Remove the focus from prosecution and punishment to addressing the underlying causes of violence against women and girls;
- Expand and fund community-based solutions like women’s centres, that prioritise rehabilitation and services in the community, to divert women away from the criminal justice system; and
- Provide practical financial incentives for employers who hire women with convictions in order to reduce employment discrimination faced by women with convictions.
For more information, please contact Working Chance:
Olivia Dehnavi, Policy and Research Officer, firstname.lastname@example.org