Blog post written by Linnéa Osterman, Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Greenwich
A thought report from the Women’s Breakout conference in Birmingham
Having been invited to speak about the research I recently led with the Restorative Justice Council on Making Restorative Justice Work for Women who Offend, in the first week of September I set off to Birmingham and the Women’s Breakout conference. A packed agenda on the themes of Restorative Justice, Children and Maternal Imprisonment, and Transforming Rehabilitation awaited me.
Starting in reverse agenda order, the Transforming Rehabilitation session at the end of the day left me with a bag of mixed emotions of despondency and inspiration to accompany me on a busy train journey back to the hustle and bustle of London. Despondency in terms of how these reforms have in many ways shattered and divided the sector; we heard about the persistent prioritising of quantity over quality in service delivery, unsuitable data and reporting systems being pushed through tactlessly, goal posts constantly changing, of partnerships being fractured, and crass payment-by-results agendas ripping up the floorboards underneath the recognition of desistance as a gradual process. Still, I somehow left the conference with a heartfelt feeling of inspiration; inspired by hearing how impassioned souls in the field are working fervently and innovatively to – despite battling a stiff headwind from the TR agenda – find ways to keep women at the heart of their services.
While need is on the rise, one-to-one work is however gradually being designed out of contracted work, as spending per head is reduced year on year.
And it must be said that while TR has produced a challenging and competitive, and some may say corrupt, terrain for frontline staff and managers to navigate across the women’s sector, this is, in comparison, arguably nowhere near as detrimental – on a humanitarian level – as the impact the government’s austerity program has had on the very women they are supporting. A consensus repeatedly echoed through the room when speakers described how the recent welfare cuts have resulted in higher volumes and greater severity of complex needs being presented among their service users. This includes the documented sharp rise in homelessness, with vulnerable women, seemingly being fair game for open exploitation, increasingly facing desperate choices in finding shelter. While need is on the rise, one-to-one work is however gradually being designed out of contracted work, as spending per head is reduced year on year. Instead, frontline staff are being forced to spend increasing amounts of their precious time on writing competitive funding bids, negotiating contract terms and implementing new reporting systems. The shameful contradiction in expectations in terms of monitoring and reporting practises was also pointed out by a number of audience members: Although staff delivering essential services in frontline roles are forced by Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) to spend an increasing extent of their working day on hourly reporting, there is no parallel transparency available for monitoring how CRCs’ spend their time OR money, as this is classified as ‘commercially sensitive information’. The language of transparency leaves a bitter flavour of bias on the tongue.
We heard divisive stories throughout the day of how contract negotiations with CRCs went in contrasting directions; some which were felt to potentially bring about a positive widening in service delivery, while others felt that they were left with no other choice than to – in order to uphold a strong and robust organisation delivering quality services of which they could stay in control of – stand up and walk away from these negotiating tables. From a management perspective, staff morale was identified as one of the many in-house challenges, with insecure staffing structures and short term contracts leading to repeated losses of essential staff skills. But is there a silver lining? In whatever mess the system may be in, it was generally felt that more referrals are coming through the doors, and also that the CRCs are opening up positive links to wider supply chains. That said, with larger suppliers come the historically-repeated unease of a system being designed by and for the majority (which is, of course, spelt m.e.n. in criminal justice terminology), leaving specialist services, such as gender-specific support to women, side-lined and marginalised.
As interesting and lively as the final session was, TR did not take up the whole day. Working backwards on the agenda, the day also included thought-provoking presentations on children affected by maternal imprisonment. Due to a lack of official recording systems, figures remain estimates but it is believed that over 17,000 children are affected by maternal imprisonment in England and Wales. With only 5% staying in the family home following the mother’s imprisonment, critical questions need to be raised in terms of where these children – essentially being punished for their mother’s crimes – are in policy and practice. And importantly, who should be responsible for their welfare?
Due to a lack of official recording systems, figures remain estimates but it is believed that over 17,000 children are affected by maternal imprisonment in England and Wales
It will come as no surprise that the separation caused by maternal imprisonment creates huge disruption to a child’s life. And what is more, these experiences are commonly coupled with particular levels of stigma and secrecy. Assumptions are also often being made of extended family taking on caring responsibilities, although, problematically, we learned that no assessments are carried out on the suitability of such care provision. We heard how many caregivers struggle to provide the appropriate and loving care that a child separated from his or her mother so desperately needs; may this be in the form of elderly grandparents who struggle with deteriorating health, or aunties and uncles who cannot make financial ends meet as a result of having a (or most commonly; another) child in the family home. The table discussions that followed centred on the importance of improved recording systems, ensuring that each child is seen, as well as that the mother always knows where her child is being held during her incarceration (there were shocking examples of this not always being the case). Further critical questions were raised in terms of how to best safeguard the welfare of the child: There was agreement that, at a bare minimum, there should be a consideration and awareness of the impact on the child already at sentencing level, in order for appropriate protective mechanisms to be put in place early.
This leads us nicely to the start of the day (and the reason I was there to start with!), namely the session on restorative justice with female offenders. After having delivered a presentation of the core findings from the study (which I will avoid repeating here and thereby – through subtle coercion – encourage you to look at the report itself!) and the audience having heard case studies from practitioners working with women, a healthy discussion of the challenges and benefits of linking restorative justice work into the women’s sector ensued. Having had experience of meeting some reluctance to delivering restorative justice work with women involved with criminal justice in the past, I was positively encouraged to participate in constructive conversations about how to make restorative justice practices gender-responsive and appropriate for this particular group. The need for more training of facilitators (especially on gender-specific factors), the importance of good partnership working, and the urgent need for more consistency in practice across the field – including on mental health assessments and signposting – were unanimously called for. If quality and trauma-informed practices are delivered, based on a flexible working approach to allow space for what is often chaotic circumstances, there was a general sense that there are no evident barriers for using restorative methods when working with female offenders. Positively, restorative justice was seen as a potential method of reducing exclusion, limiting the avenues of criminalisation, and opening up for informal restoration between those harmed and those having done harm. This may well, some expressed, help to put a door stop on the revolving door of criminal justice experienced by so many women. For this to be effectively and ethically done, however, the specific needs and circumstances of female offending must not only be acknowledged, but incorporated into the field and mainstreamed into practice (If you are interested in reading about the practical aspects of what a more gender-aware practice may look like, please see the Practitioner Guide that was developed from the project).
I somehow left the conference with a heartfelt feeling of inspiration; inspired by hearing how impassioned souls in the field are working fervently and innovatively to – despite battling a stiff headwind from the TR agenda – find ways to keep women at the heart of their services.
So what is happening in the world of women and criminal justice? Well, as so much of the charitable sector, organisations working with women in and around criminal justice face challenging times, with increasing levels of need being presented, but with diminishing resources to meet them. Yet, the field remains robust, propped up by a large number of determined and ambitious women (and a smaller number of determined and ambitious men) who are working tremendously hard to find new ways to navigate the field. Looking forward, a strong and united voice is needed to defend and further develop the vital work that is being done on the grounds, supporting women on the edge of society. There was a pronounced agreement that a key focus must now fall on reducing female imprisonment levels, which quite nicely ties together some of the major themes of the day in terms of the wider impact of women’s imprisonment, the urgent need to scrutinize processes under TR (including recall procedures), and the potential value of extending the use of alternative justice mechanisms, such as restorative approaches, to aid more women to successfully exit criminal justice and move on with their lives in a more positive direction.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s own, and are not necessarily representative of the views of Women’s Breakout or any associated organisations.
The text from this blog post first appeared on Law and Criminology Research, a University of Greenwich blog http://blogs.gre.ac.uk/lawandcrim/2016/09/27/whats-happening-in-the-world-of-women-and-criminal-justice-a-thought-report-from-the-womens-breakout-conference-in-birmingham/