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21 Jul 2022

Arrests reduced, but further work needed to keep more women out of the criminal justice system

Police in England and Wales have recorded a welcome reduction in unnecessary arrests of women in recent years, but further work is needed to keep more women out of the criminal justice system, an influential cross-party panel of MPs and peers has found.

A briefing published today (Thursday 21 July) by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System (APPG) reveals that arrests of women were reduced by 6 per cent over the course of three years – from 98,902 in 2017-18 to 93,225 in 2020-21.

But the APPG has found that the government’s failure to prioritise its Female Offender Strategy, along with a “twin-track” approach to policing which sees women labelled either as victims or “offenders”, means there is still some way to go to ensure women are not arrested when it is unnecessary or inappropriate.

The conclusions are set out in the fourth and final briefing from the APPG’s inquiry into reducing arrests of women, which was launched in May 2019 to investigate what could be done to stem the flow of women into the criminal justice system. The inquiry ran in parallel with a three-year programme by the Howard League for Penal Reform aimed at tackling the issue.

Jackie Doyle-Price MP, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, said: “Since the APPG began its inquiry, we have seen good progress in policing to reduce the number of women being swept into the criminal justice system, but clearly there is still work to be done.

“It remains the case that too many women are being arrested unnecessarily, most notably in relation to incidents in the home, so it is encouraging to see police services taking a more nuanced approach to these cases.

“Another step forward would be for the sensible aims of the Ministry of Justice’s Female Offender Strategy to be given greater priority by the next Prime Minister and their government.”

Kate Green MP, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System, said: “Putting women in touch with services that can support them is a much smarter use of police resources than making unnecessary arrests, and it helps to reduce crime.

“This is why it is so important that the police and other agencies work in partnership, with more commitment and investment needed from the centre to ensure this happens consistently across the country.

“The reduction in arrests is a promising start, and our inquiry has highlighted pockets of good practice, but there is also considerable room for further improvement.”

The welcome reduction in arrests has coincided with a move by some police forces to develop gender-informed strategies that take local arrest data into account.

As part of its inquiry, the APPG received original and detailed evidence from five police forces in England and Wales, who provided anonymised data on more than 600 arrests of women. The data provided an insight into the problem of unnecessary and inappropriate arrests; for example, about half of arrests of women on suspicion of violent offences resulted in no further action.

The inquiry uncovered a high number of arrests following police call-outs to incidents in the home, with many cases of women being arrested only to later face no further action. The briefing calls for more nuanced approaches to dealing with conflict in the home, and notes that several police forces are now developing risk-led methods to address these cases.

In an example of a risk-led approach, the APPG found good practice in Durham Constabulary, where neighbourhood policing teams and PCSOs have received additional bespoke training on how to identify parental conflict. Police officers are equipped to recognise the fundamental differences between parental conflict and domestic abuse and respond to incidents accordingly.

The briefing reveals that partnership working between organisations in the criminal justice sector and voluntary sector has helped to keep vulnerable women out of the criminal justice system and reduce arrests. However, while numerous examples of such partnerships were found, the work was dependent on local leadership and adequate funding, meaning that consistency in commitment and investment is still needed.

The APPG found the government’s Female Offender Strategy, aimed at reducing the number of women entering the criminal justice system, to be a welcome and evidence-based initiative. It also found, however, that the Ministry of Justice had not prioritised investment into the programme, nor set out clear plans to ensure the strategy led to uniform policy change.

The briefing states that there has been a recent spate of strategies and legislation aimed at tackling violence against women and girls, which, although welcome, must be coordinated and made to support one another.

It adds: “The focus on tackling violence against women and girls is welcome. However, there is a need for a joined-up approach to ensure that all strategies for women fit together and do not divide women into separate groups of either victims or alleged ‘offenders’.”

The briefing recommends that each police service should appoint a lead for women “to have oversight of police responses to every woman who comes into contact with the police”.

The inquiry found that women who are victims of coercive control can often become caught up in the criminal justice system when they are pressurised to carry out illegal activity by abusive partners.

The briefing suggests that the “recruitment of additional police officers is an opportunity to embed a gender-informed approach to policing and ensure that all officers have an understanding of the complexities of domestic violence and coercive control”.

While the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has predicted that the government’s commitment to recruiting 20,000 new police officers is likely to contribute to a rise in the number of women in prison, the briefing states that such an increase is not inevitable.

The briefing calls on the MoJ to work in partnership with the Home Office, the College of Policing and statutory agencies to ensure that every new recruit is aware of the Female Offender Strategy, its commitment to support vulnerable women in the community and the measures available to divert women from coming into contact with the criminal justice system where appropriate.

Notes to editors

  1. The All Party Parliamentary Group for Women in the Penal System (APPG) was set up in July 2009, with Baroness Corston as Chair and secretariat support from the Howard League for Penal Reform. Today, it is co-chaired by Jackie Doyle-Price MP and Kate Green MP.
  2. The APPG comprises MPs and Members of the House of Lords from all parties and works to increase knowledge and awareness of issues around women in the penal system, as well as push for the full implementation of the recommendations of The Corston Report: A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system.
  3. Arresting the entry of women into the criminal justice system: Briefing four can be read on the Howard League website.
  4. The APPG’s inquiry was complemented by a three-year Howard League programme to arrest the entry of women into the criminal justice system. The Howard League’s programme was supported by the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, which partners with small and local charities who help overcome complex social issues. More information about the programme can be found on the Howard League website.


Rob Preece
Communications Manager
The Howard League for Penal Reform
Tel: +44 (0)7714 604955

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