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Chief champions equality in the justice service

24/01/2012

Equality in the criminal justice system is not achieved by treating men and women in the same way - Merseyside prosecutors were told today

Paul Whittaker, Chief Crown Prosecutor of CPS Mersey-Cheshire, was speaking at his inaugural lecture and told invited guests that we can no longer ignore the fact that women offenders have been disadvantaged by being given sanctions devised to deal with men.

Mr Whittaker said: "The Corston Report (2007) on Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System and the Fawcett Society (2009) report on Engendering Justice: From Policy to Practice have both emphasised the need to rethink the way in which women offenders are viewed and dealt with by the criminal justice system.

"These reports suggest that there are significant differences between the offending of men and women and that these require a targeted response.  Male-defined practices and programmes being applied to women and has resulted in women offenders being shoehorned into a system designed for men."

Mr Whittaker also spoke about the devastating effect that a custodial sentence for low level women offenders can have on wider society:

"Estimates show that women offenders cost the criminal justice system and society around £1.8bn per year. These include costs of health and mental health care, drug and alcohol provision and costs to Local Authorities for housing or taking children into care.

"It is estimated that around 66% of women in prison have dependent children under 18 and of those women, 34% had children under five. Children whose parents offend are three times more likely to have mental health problems or engage in antisocial behaviour than their peers."
 
During 2009 Liverpool was one of three national pilot sites testing out a scheme which sought to divert women convicted of minor crimes away from traditional custodial sentences. Instead eligible defendants were given women specific conditional cautions (WSC) which included a requirement to attend a women's turnaround project. Following the success of the project CPS Merseyside committed to supporting this by continuing to divert women through conditional cautions to attend the women centres in Liverpool and Birkenhead.

"The women specific conditional caution is a caution with a rehabilitative condition. It requires the woman offender to attend a Together Women centre for a needs assessment. The assessment deals with the cases of offending and also signposts further support to deal with issues such as debt, housing and employment," said Mr Whittaker.

"The latest results show that since March last year less than 5% of women who were given this sanction reoffended," said Mr Whittaker.

The scheme depends upon women attending Turnaround Projects like the ones available at the Tomorrow Women Wirral Project, Birkenhead, or Adelaide House Women's Approved Premises and Outreach Programme in Liverpool.

Pat Thomas, Chief Executive Office of Adelaide House, said: "Being imprisoned can have a devastating, long-term effect on women and their families. The relatively small number of women's prisons means that many women serve their sentence a long way from their homes, making family contact difficult.

"This service provides a real alternative for those who want to serve their sentences in the community and receive the help and support necessary to turn their lives around.

"Once the women have competed the terms of their sentence, they can often continue to use the centres to ensure they receive ongoing support."

Mr Whittaker concluded by saying: "What I would like to stress is that this scheme does not mean that women offenders are getting away with anything. They are engaging with support centres, but are doing so in a way which benefits wider society and results in less offending in the long term."

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For more information or to arrange interviews with Paul Whittaker, please contact Sharon King, Area communications manager on 0151 239 6465.
 

Notes to editors

Since March 2011 a total of 57 women on Merseyside have received a women's specific conditional caution with the specific condition to attend a turnaround project. Of these cases, only two have re-offended and a breach has occurred in one case.

A conditional caution is an out-of-court disposal introduced by Criminal Justice Act 2003 (as amended by the Police and Justice Act 2006). It provides a way of dealing with the offender as an alternative to prosecution. It may be given to an adult (18+), where there is sufficient evidence and the offender admits the offence and agrees to the caution and conditions attached.  

In September 2008, a new condition was developed for dealing with low-level, low-risk women offenders. This condition is referred to as the women specific condition (WSC).
References:

Conditional cautions: Evaluation of the women specific condition pilot
Ministry of Justice Research Series July 2010

Corston Report (2007) Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System. London: Home Office.

Fawcett Society (2009) Engendering Justice: From Policy to Practice. London: The Fawcett Society.