Non-custodial community programmes for non-violent female criminals in the UK

This is the fifth in a series of blogs from the finalists of this year’s Policy Idol competition. These blogs were originally presented as policy pitches at the live final of the competition earlier this year. Policy Idol is an annual competition open to all staff and students at King’s.

By Sarah Williams and Emma Wynne-Bannister

In the UK, approximately 9,000 women are imprisoned each year for non-violent crimes such as shoplifting, parking fines and non-payment of a TV licence. This includes around 5,000 women who are remanded in custody before being given a non-custodial sentence. A typical confinement is six months or less, a paradoxical situation in which these women are imprisoned just long enough for benefits to cease, but insufficient time to secure alternatives (the rate of official homelessness on discharge from prison sits at almost 40 per cent). As a result, many of these women get caught in a cycle of re-offending and re-imprisonment – a cycle that is costing the UK economy approximately £200 million each year.

More than half of women in contact with the UK criminal justice system are victims themselves, with backgrounds that include sexual abuse and domestic violence. Around 60 per cent have a drug habit, including alcohol misuse, and almost all have poor mental health. It is estimated that up to two thirds are mothers, most of whom have lone parent responsibility. Of the 17,000 children separated from their mothers each year, only 5 per cent remain in the family residence. More than 16,000 children are separated from both their primary caregiver and their home. Moreover, nearly two thirds of boys who have a parent in prison will go on to commit some kind of crime themselves – perpetuating the negative cycle across genders and generations.

Emma and Sarah on stage with BBC Home Editor Mark Easton

Emma and Sarah on stage with BBC Home Editor Mark Easton

Most worrying are female prisoner self-harm statistics. Despite comprising only 5 per cent of the total prison population, women account for a quarter of all self-harm injuries. In the period from January 2015 to December 2016 there were 22 female prison suicides, a huge increase from the previous record of eight per year.

But the situation does not need to be this way. Instead of sending these women to prison, the UK could adopt a policy of imposing community service and support sentences instead. These sentences would be delivered through local women’s centres, and would entail the women undertaking community service, as a punitive measure, but also receiving mandatory counselling and psychological support. In addition, they would receive compulsory training, education and the opportunity to convert a criminal record into a broadened CV and official references, increasing the likelihood of secure employment on completion of the programme.

This government-driven policy would harness and develop the services already provided by non-governmental organisations, the NHS, local councils and the criminal justice system. The £40,000 per year it costs to keep each of these women imprisoned would be diverted to provide secure, dedicated funding for these centres, with the possibility of governmental savings as the programmes are almost a tenth of the cost per person according to the Ministry of Justice’s figures from 2016. Furthermore, the savings could be reinvested to increase the number of women’s centres across the UK and potentially broaden the scope of the service offer, to support prevention of offending.


Co-ordinated services would allow improved outcome evaluation, along with research into funding models such as social impact bonds (whereby the centres are funded on a payment-by-results basis). There is evidence to show that this policy model reduces re-offending and improves the social return – not least by keeping families together. Women account for only 5 per cent of the prison population, so addressing their needs first can serve as a pilot study with the long-term potential for roll-out to male, non-violent criminals.

The United Nations recognised the need to seek alternatives to imprisonment over a decade ago, citing an example where a move to more non-custodial sentences in Kazakhstan led to a reduction in the overall crime rate. The Nordic countries have also adopted more socially inclusive penal methods, outside of prisons, that have significantly reduced recidivism. It is time for the UK to follow suit and adopt a cheaper alternative that reduces re-offending, improves health and wellbeing, and ends the negative social cycle for families, wider society and future generations.

Sarah Williams and Emma Wynne-Bannister are both studying for an MSc in Global Health and Social Justice in the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine at King’s College London.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *