Executive summary

There are women with multiple needs in contact with, or on the edges of, the criminal justice system in every local authority area. A number of local, regional and national authorities and multiagency partnerships have overlapping responsibilities for their health and wellbeing – whether as a statutory duty or because supporting vulnerable people is integral to their role. Although examples of good and promising practice exist, many women do not receive the support they need, which, in turn, can contribute towards them coming into contact with the criminal justice system. The daily lives of women with multiple needs are often bleak. They are frequently underserved by health and care services and, in the absence of timely support, the ongoing cost of addressing poor health and wellbeing outcomes, and of crisis intervention, are high. 

Most women in contact with criminal justice services have poor mental health, alcohol and/or drug misuse problems, and around half report having been victims of physical, sexual and/or domestic abuse. Between a quarter and almost a third of women who offend have dependent children, and almost two-thirds of women in prison are mothers of children under 18 years of age. The damaging generational impact of parental contact with criminal justice services, and cycles of disadvantage for children, is well evidenced and, sadly, ongoing. Poor prior experience of statutory services can make women reluctant to seek help, while the array of support agencies can be confusing and hard to access. 

Reduced budgets have driven a need for greater efficiencies while maintaining outcomes, and a renewed focus on how public services are delivered. Early intervention, co-location of services, and integrating services around the individual are approaches that show promising results for women. Women centred working recognises the particular circumstances of women, and can make it easier for them to engage with services as well as creating opportunities to maximize reduced budgets and shared public sector priorities. Building on women’s strengths and increasing their resilience can help them to take charge of their lives and reduce their need for support. Involving women in service design can help to ensure more efficient and effective provision. 

Councils are uniquely placed to champion women. By working through existing multi-agency partnerships, and with women with multiple needs, their leadership can ensure strategic oversight and collaboration to develop innovative solutions to transform the lives of women and their families. 

This short report is a strategic guide for council officers and locally elected members from councils across England. It sets out the case for change and suggests practical ways in which local authorities can prioritise and address the needs of some of the most vulnerable citizens in their local area. 

Work undertaken to produce this report has included a literature review and three seminars with local and regional leaders, and women with direct experience of support services and the criminal justice system (see appendix 1). A number of illustrative studies are used throughout this briefing paper, many of which are drawn from seminars held in Chelmsford and Liverpool.

The full report is available to download below, along with the press release.