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Women in the Penal System

Our work to ensure fairness for women

We want women to be able to reach their full potential, to contribute to their families and to their communities. Too many vulnerable women are being swept up into the criminal justice system when it is not necessary or appropriate.

The reasons that women end up in the criminal justice system or in prison are often complex. Nearly two thirds of women in the criminal justice system have experienced domestic abuse. Many have experienced childhood trauma, mental health problems or homelessness.

Contact with the criminal justice system can make things worse, not better for women. It can mean women lose their jobs and their homes, making it harder to address the problems which brought them into contact with the police or the courts. A criminal conviction and particularly a prison sentence can affect a women’s ability to care for her family, causing lasting harm to her children and grandchildren.

We are working to stem the flow of women into the criminal justice system.

The impact of Covid-19 on women in the criminal justice system: Our response

The coronavirus pandemic has underlined the critical role played by women in their communities and particularly in their families, with children out of school and caring support limited. At the same time, the restrictions imposed in prisons to prevent infection have had a really severe impact on women prisoners and their loved ones, with all visiting suspended and 23 hour lockdown for most women.  

As part of our wider response to Covid-19, we have been active in campaigning to reduce the numbers of women being drawn into the criminal justice system at this time, and for the release of women from prisons, where that can safely be achieved. On 24 March our CEO Frances Crook blogged about the importance of the police using their professional discretion to keep the most vulnerable women out of the criminal justice system, by avoiding unnecessary use of arrest powers and considering diversion.  On 27 March she called for swift and decisive action in releasing those women who could safely return to the community.

The government’s response has been slow, despite their pledge to release up to 4,000 prisoners to ease overcrowding in the prison estate, including pregnant women and women in mother and baby units. As of 12 June, only 23 pregnant women prisoners and women with babies in prison had been released. But we have continued to keep up the pressure. In May we provided evidence to the Justice Committee on the need to take a distinct approach to charging, remanding and sentencing women at this time In a similar vein on 10 June we also wrote a letter to the Lord Chief Justice urging him to ensure that judges and magistrates are fully informed of the current situation for women in prison and to encourage the judiciary to take into account the impact on women of the current restrictions when making remand and sentence decisions.  We await a response but continue to press for action to be taken. 

Arresting the entry of women into the criminal justice system

The Howard League is conducting a three year programme to reduce the arrests of women.

Find out more about the programme to reduce arrests

Improving outcomes for women at remand and sentence

The Howard League is campaigning for major changes to the way courts make decisions about remanding women to prison to await trial or sentence. The charity is also working to ensure that the sentences women receive are a fair response to the crimes they have committed but at the same time enable them to rebuild their lives.

Find our more about our work on remand and sentencing

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Women in the Penal System

The Howard League provides administrative assistance to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Women in the Penal System, chaired by Baroness Corston, Kate Green MP and Victoria Prentis MP. The APPG works to ensure high quality debate and discussion on issues around women in the justice system in Parliament and continues to push for the full implementation of the Corston Report recommendations.

Read more about the APPG here

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