Mental Health, Autism & Learning Disabilities in the Criminal Courts

Information for magistrates, district judges and court staff

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17. Women in the criminal justice system

The Prison Reform Trust has long called for a reduction in women’s imprisonment and a step change in how the criminal justice system responds to women.

In October 2015 the Prison Reform Trust started a three year UK-wide programme to reduce women’s imprisonment, with support from the Big Lottery Fund and in partnership with Families Outside (Scotland), Soroptimist International (UK), User Voice Women’s Councils, and KeyRing Living Support Networks.

The programme, Transforming Lives, has a strong emphasis on local practice and engaging with local statutory and voluntary sector services, as well as working with Government to identify and tackle drivers to women’s imprisonment and foster greater use of early intervention and community responses.

This section, Women and the criminal justice system, is from a briefing paper by the Prison Reform Trust Why focus on reducing women’s imprisonment? (2016), ; and references are included in that paper. Further information about Transforming Lives, and a range of briefings, publications and resource materials, is available on our website

Reducing women’s imprisonment

Since the Transforming Lives programme began on 1 October 2015, there has been a welcome 4% decrease in the number of women received into prison and a 17% fall in the number of women remanded into prison. The challenge remains, however, to ensure that women receive timely and appropriate support so that custody is used only as a last resort.

Profile of women who offend:

    • Mental health problems are more prevalent among women in prison than among men in prison. Women are nearly twice as likely as men in prison to have depression – 65% and 37% respectively, and are more than three times as likely to have depression as women in the general population (19%). Almost a third (30%) of women in custody had a psychiatric admission prior to entering prison.
    • Women in prison are highly likely to be victims of much more serious offences than the ones they are accused of committing. More than half (53%) report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child compared to 27% of men. 57% of women report having been victims of domestic violence.
“The greater energy with which the Government has begun to address the issue of women offenders needs to be… continued. [T]his applies to matters such as reliable funding of women’s centres, the effectiveness of rehabilitation provision for women by Community Rehabilitation Companies, and the potential of smaller custodial units.” House of Commons Justice Committee, 2015

 Woman Purple

  • Women can become trapped in a vicious cycle  of abuse and criminal activity. Their situation can  be worsened by poverty, poor mental health,  and substance misuse. Leaving an abusive relationship doesn’t guarantee that violence will stop. The period when a woman is planning or making her exit is often the most dangerous time for her and her children.
  • Women are more likely than men to report needing help with a drug problem on entry to prison –  49% and 29% respectively. Around 70% of women coming into custody require clinical detoxification compared with 50% of men. Women prisoners are more likely than men to associate drug use with their offending.
  • Alcohol is a significant driver to women’s offending. 56% of women prisoners who drank alcohol in excess four weeks before custody felt they had a problem with alcohol compared to 10% of the women in the general population.

Impact of imprisonment

  • Women are imprisoned further from home and receive fewer visits. This adversely affects their ability to maintain relationships and contact with home.
  • Women are more likely to harm themselves whilst in prison. In the year ending June 2016, 297 women self-harmed per 1,000 prisoners, compared to 115 men.
  • In the year ending September 2016, 19 women had died in custody, of which 8 were self-inflicted. This equates to 4.9 deaths in custody per 1,000 women, an increase from 1.8 the previous year.
  • 60% of women do not have homes to go to on their release from prison. In the absence of safe and decent accommodation it is much harder to find work and, for mothers, to be reunited with their children.
“We want to see fewer women in custody and to promote a greater focus on early intervention, diversion and multiagency approaches to ensure that the justice system can take proper account of the specific needs of women.”  House of Commons Justice Committee, 2015

Mothers in prison

  • Supreme Court and Court of Appeal decisions have addressed the need for criminal courts to consider the welfare of dependent children and the consequences for family life. For example, R v. Petherwick 2012 made it clear that the rights of a child must be considered when the courts sentence a mother who has a dependent child.
  • Women prisoners are more likely to be primary carers of children than are men. Six in ten women in prison have (on average two) dependent children; fewer than one in ten children whose mother is in prison are cared for by their father.
  • Women’s imprisonment results in an estimated 17,240 children being separated from their mothers each year. Parental imprisonment can treble the risk of antisocial behaviour in children, double their chances of poor mental health, and increase the risk of children living in poverty and insecure housing – each of which can result in high personal and economic cost.

Alternatives to custody

Evaluations of community services for women have shown that they can help to reduce reoffending, provide effective programmes, activity and support for women who offend and for women who are at risk of offending.

    • Outcomes for women who are sent to prison are worse than for those given community orders: 56% of women released from prison reoffend within a year compared to 26% of those commencing a community order; and 95% of women successfully complete their community order or licence period.
    • A women’s police triage project in Hull found a 46% reduction in the re-arrest rate of women over a 12-month follow up period. The success of this scheme has led to Humberside Police piloting a similar model for adult young offenders.
    • Women’s Centres can provide the help that women need to stop offending; meaning that women achieve positive outcomes in multiple areas, such as health, education, relationships, resilience, employment and social integration – as well as reduced reoffending.
    • HM Inspectorate of Probation’s thematic review of the provision and quality of services in the community for women who offend (2016) found that:
Women’s Centres are particularly vulnerable and some have already lost funding, yet they have an important role to play. We found cases where they had been pivotal in turning women away from crime and helping them to rebuild their lives.

The reform agenda for women in contact with criminal justice services

    • In England and Wales, the Ministerial Advisory Board on Female Offenders provides the mechanism for a cross-government strategy to reduce women’s imprisonment. The judiciary are represented on this Board, including the Magistrates’ Association.
    • Section 10 of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 requires the specific needs of women to be taken into account in the planning of supervision and rehabilitation arrangements.
    • The Ministry of Justice Prison Safety and Reform white paper (November 2016) refers to a forthcoming women’s strategy, which will look at how the Ministry of Justice can: 
 …reduce the number of women offending and ending up in custody, including through early and targeted interventions.
  • New technology is being considered that may enable more women with young children to serve their sentence in the community.
  • The government has committed to a ‘whole systems approach’ in England and Wales to achieve coherence between policy, commissioning and service delivery across, and between, criminal justice, health and social care, welfare, children’s and other community services. Increasingly, this has focused on particular support for women at the point of arrest, sentencing, and on release from prison.
  • The government strategy, Violence Against Women & Girls 2016-2020, recognises the need to support female offenders affected by domestic abuse.

Film clip


Women's voices: a film clip of women talking about their experiences of the criminal justice system will be available online during 2017.


 Some questions you might want to consider:

  • What programmes or interventions for women are available in your area?
  • Do you know if there is a women’s centre in your area and, if so, have you visited it?
  • Do pre-sentence reports provide the necessary information about a woman’s needs, including whether she has dependent children?
  • How often does your Bench defer sentence for a restorative justice programme?

Women and the criminal justice system summary:

  • Women are a small minority of defendants who come before the courts; it is helpful, therefore, for magistrates to be aware of the particular needs of women in the criminal justice system as these may be relevant to the individual before you.
  • Women’s offending is often linked to the abusive and coercive relationships in which they have become trapped, to histories of trauma and abuse, or time spent in care as children.
  • Women are much more likely than men to be the sole or primary carer of children; therefore, the impact on children of sentencing should be considered.
  • There is evidence that specialist women’s centres and services are particularly effective in helping women address their problems, reduce their reoffending and turn their lives around.
  • Women are more likely than men to successfully complete a community order or licence supervision order.
  • Prison is seldom a place of safety for individuals with multiple and complex needs.

Further reading: 


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