Lord Farmer: We must strengthen female offenders' relationships to prevent reoffending and intergenerational crime
We must keep women out of prison where possible, as incarceration encroaches on family life in many troubling ways, says Lord Farmer.
On Thursday 25th July the Lords debate the needs of women in the criminal justice system. My recently-published Review on the need to strengthen female offenders’ relationships to prevent reoffending and intergenerational crime concluded that the importance of family and other relationships needs to be the golden thread running through all processes and the culture of the criminal justice system – including liaison and diversion services, sentencing, probation and prison.
Relationships are female offenders’ biggest criminogenic need: those without good relationships are at greater risk of reoffending. Nearly three quarters have problems or issues with relationships which increase this risk.
Domestic abuse, including pressure from coercive partners to commit crime, has affected 57% of women in prison. Over half experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse in their family backgrounds and almost one third spent time in care.
Unresolved trauma related to such adversities in childhood or later life drive unhealthy coping strategies such as substance misuse and self-harm. Indeed, women’s vulnerabilities, concentrated in the criminal justice system, are the distillation of the breakdown of family and other relationships that is so prevalent in our wider society.
A quarter of a century ago Tony Blair talked about being tough on the causes of crime and the role played by family breakdown. Those who experience family breakdown in childhood are over twice as likely to experience homelessness; to be in trouble with the police or spend time in prison. We need to do more to prevent crime happening in the first place and to prevent it running in families: adult children of imprisoned mothers are more likely to be convicted than adult children of imprisoned fathers, yet almost two thirds of male prisoners’ sons went on to offend themselves. Hence the need to keep women out of prison where possible as incarceration encroaches on family life in many troubling ways.
However, female prisoners who receive family visits are 39% less likely to reoffend than those who do not. Healthy and supportive relationships are undoubtedly rehabilitation assets but it’s vital to know which relationships are in fact toxic.
I recommended that anyone working with a woman in the criminal justice system needs to gather information about her relationships, any children in her care, her accommodation etc, in a Personal Circumstances File which she, not the state, owns and controls. Over half of women in custody have dependent children and we need to know who and where their children are.
I also called for workforce changes inside female prisons which need more family engagement workers and social workers. Family engagement workers are highly effective at supporting ties between prisoners and family members, including when children’s care proceedings are ongoing.
Every women’s prison also needs their own resident social worker to advocate for women in their care. Being on a par with community-based social workers enables them to influence life-changing decisions about the custody of prisoners’ children.
The practical and emotional difficulties facing women who remain primary carers from inside prison should be mitigated where possible. All imprisoned women, where risk is not a problem, should have access to skype-type visits.
Women face enormous difficulties accessing housing upon release, and a Catch 22 situation where their children cannot join them until appropriate housing has been found, but this cannot be secured until the family is living together.
Allocation guidance for local authorities needs to change to recognise the prospective housing needs of women leaving prison. (This already happens for families seeking larger properties to accommodate future foster and adoptive children.)
To conclude: not all offenders are mothers and not all have families but those who have neither still need relationships. All adults going through the criminal justice system need the unconditional support of at least one other human being who is rooting for them. Relationships give meaning and motivation to the whole of life – and they are indispensable for successful rehabilitation.
Lord Farmer is a Conservative member of the House of Lords.