Plans for five new community prisons for women have been scrapped, instead Justice Secretary David Gauke has pledged instead to set up at least five residential centres for women in a pilot scheme.
The move is part of plans to try to reduce the number of female offenders serving short jail terms, replacing them with community sentences instead that will allow women to spend more time with their children who otherwise would end up in care.
In the foreword to the strategy, Mr Gauke said 70.7% of women and 62.9% of men released from custody between April and June 2016 after a sentence of less than a year went on to re-offend within 12 months.
He said: “There is persuasive evidence that short custodial sentences are less effective in reducing re-offending than community orders. Short sentences generate churn which is a major driver of instability in our prisons and they do not provide sufficient time for rehabilitative activity.
“The impact on women, many of whom are sentenced for non-violent, low-level but persistent offences, often for short periods of time, is particularly significant.
“The prevalence of anxiety and self-harm incidents is greater than for male prisoners.
“As more female offenders are primary carers than their male counterparts, these sentences lead to a disproportionate impact on children and families and a failure to halt the intergenerational cycle of offending.”
It is estimated that female offenders cost £1.7 billion in 2015/16, of which around £1 billion were incurred by the police.
The strategy proposes greater use of community punishments for women rather than short jail terms, and a review will be carried out looking at how they can spend more time with their children.
But critics have said the £5m earmarked for the scheme, and the lack of any firm timetable for its delivery, is ‘simply not good enough’.
Mark Leech, editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales welcomed the news saying it has the potential to benefit many women offenders, ‘but the money earmarked for this is simply not enough’ he said.
Mr Leech said: “The majority of women offenders come to prison with a long and complex history of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, so on the surface this is good news.
“Research shows they are more than twice as likely to have a mental health issue than men, and almost half committed their offence to support the drug use of someone else .
“Women are often the prime carers for their children who, when the mother goes to prison, are often taken into care where potentially life-long offending cycles can start for them too.
“Wherever possible women need to be given community penalties – but let’s be honest, the £5m earmarked for these five centres is chicken-feed in the scheme of things – what’s happened to the £50m earmarked for the five new prisons, and why isn’t that being invested in this initiative?
Mr Leech said his caution was not in relation to the theory, ‘governments have shed-loads of theories’, but on his past experience that these things rarely come to fruition as initially announced.
Mr Leech said: “The glaringly obvious lack of resources and absence of any coherent timetable for delivery, is deeply worrying.
“Let’s see the delivery plan, with ring-fenced funding and a strict delivery timetable, and then we can welcome progress that is real rather than another expression of good intent that so often comes to nothing.”
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “The strategy is welcome recognition of the futility of short prison sentences for women whose offending is often driven by abusive relationships or unmet mental health needs.
“The strategy recognises that many women are victims of more serious crimes than those they are accused of, and contains many positive promises of change. But it has not provided the resource to deliver that change, and no timetable to drive it.
“If the Government turns its good intentions into action, many thousands of women and families, including victims, will benefit. That work must start immediately.”
The Government has pledged to spend £5 million over two years on “community provision” for women.