New centre to be piloted as alternative to prison for women convicted of low-level crimes
There are calls for the UK government to “pick up the pace” of its female offenders’ strategy amid plans to open a new residential centre in Swansea for women who have committed low level crimes.
Politicians and offenders support organisations have welcomed plans to open the Residential Women’s Centre in Swansea, which will have 12 beds and will help women who have experienced addiction, domestic abuse and trauma.
Scheduled to open in 2024, the centre is part of a pilot which aims to cut the number of women being sent to prison and will target women who would have otherwise received sentences of a year or less.
The new residential centre will be staffed by the probation service and hopes to help up to 50 women a year from the area.
Women with a community sentence will be able to live there for up to 12 weeks allowing them to stay near families and support networks, while women not required to live there will also be able to access services provided by the centre.
The new centre will give women access to therapy, counselling and addiction support, with a strict no drugs and alcohol policy, and will also help women with employability and parenting skills.
The site is subject to planning permission and once opened will run as a pilot for five years.
According to figures reported by the BBC about 60% of women in custody in the UK have experienced domestic abuse, while 50% have problems with addiction, factors which can lead to low-level crimes among female offenders, including shoplifting, non-payment of fines and drug and alcohol offences.
There are currently no female estates in Wales and recent research from Cardiff University showed that last year 218 Welsh women were sent to prisons in England.
HMP Styal near Manchester tends to accommodate Women from north Wales while women from south and west Wales tend go to HMP Eastwood Park in South Gloucestershire.
The study found that more than a fifth of women from Wales in prison had a sentence of less than twelve months.
Safer Wales, an organisation which helps women in the criminal justice system, says that separating women from family and support network puts them at increased risk of further domestic violence and homelessness and breaks down family relationships.
The Ministry of Justice said custodial sentences for women should be a last resort, while the sentencing council, which sets guidelines for judges, warns that the impact of removing women from their communities and families should always be considered.
Emma Jones who runs Include, a community hub which currently works with female offenders in Swansea, told the BBC that she believed putting women in prison for short sentences makes it harder to break the cycles of offending.
Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Jo Stevens, welcomed the announcement of the centre and called on the UK government to “stop dithering and pick up the pace” in delivering its female offenders plan.
Ms Stevens, also accused the UK Government of not having its priorities right and treating vulnerable women as an “afterthought”
“Labour have long argued for facilities for vulnerable women with complex needs who would otherwise be sentenced to custody,” she told the BBC.
“These women need a safe and secure facility that is fit for purpose, while allowing them to maintain contact with their families, particularly children.”
Rhys ab Owen MS, the justice spokesperson for Plaid Cymru, criticised the limited timescale and geographical reach of the pilot scheme, and the delays that the project has already seen.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for the announcement so it’s a good thing we now know when it will start,” he said.
“It is concerning that the pilot won’t start until 2024 and a five-year pilot which only includes women from the Swansea area.
“There is a real concern about women from the rest of Wales, as the numbers of women from Wales being sent to prison are increasing year on year.”
Victoria Atkins MP the minister responsible for prisons in the Ministry of Justice said she recognises the concerns surrounding sending women from Wales to prison for short sentences, and that as reoffending rates for female prisoners are high, believes the Swansea pilot also makes economic sense.
She said: “If a woman is at the start of her offending career, where if we can intervene that bit earlier, give her some support that she needs, then that will help make our streets safer.”
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