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PCC responds to parliamentary briefing on Women in the Penal System

In a briefing published this week, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in the Penal System (APPG) has said its inquiry has found police resources are being wasted on arresting women inappropriately, holding them in custody and releasing them without charge. 

Jackie Doyle-Price MP, Co-Chair of the APPG, said: “The government’s female offender strategy recognises the challenges that many women face and outlines the clear benefits of intervening early to help keep them out of the criminal justice system. Now we need to see more progress on the ground.

“Diverting women to support services instead of arresting them is a smarter use of police resources that helps to reduce crime.”

Norfolk’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Lorne Green, has welcomed the APPG briefing and its support for initiatives which recognise women face very different hurdles to men in their journey towards a law-abiding life and need a distinct response which takes that into account.

He said: “Through our WONDER programme, we’re making sure that, here in Norfolk, vulnerable women, those with complex needs and, in some cases, extremely chaotic lives, have access to the help and support they need to address the root causes of behaviour which may bring them into contact with the criminal justice system.”

The WONDER (Women Offenders of Norfolk Diversion Engagement and Rehabilitation) programme was launched in March 2018 as a whole system approach to rehabilitating female offenders and supporting women at risk of offending. 

In 2019, WONDER was shortlisted for a Community Award by the Howard League of Penal Reform which recognises projects which keep people out of the criminal justice system by providing other proportionate, effective interventions to help reduce offending.

Women can be referred to WONDER through interactions with community policing teams, police custody, County, Magistrates and Family Courts, district council-based early help hubs, victim services, health services, and other help and support networks for vulnerable women. Women can also self-refer to the programme.

On referral, women receive a gender-specific assessment of their needs, with specialist support workers helping them to develop a plan of action and access local services.

The programme receives its funding from the Ministry of Justice, Norfolk Police and Crime Commissioner, Norfolk County Council Public Health and the Norfolk and Suffolk Community Rehabilitation Company (NSCRC), and is delivered by St Giles Trust in partnership with Future Projects. 

During its two years of operation, there have been more than 600 referrals to the WONDER programme, which has expanded in scope both systemically and geographically, spreading across the county in both urban and rural areas.

Its results demonstrate:

  • Women on the scheme have specific needs and face disproportionate disadvantage and high levels of trauma and abuse. Very large proportions have problems with their emotional and mental health. Over half have issues relating to victimisation (rape, abuse or domestic violence), substance misuse, and finance, benefit and debt issues. One quarter face accommodation difficulties and matters pertaining to children and families.
  • The description of need from the women bears out the importance of understanding complexity when addressing primary need. For example, in instances of financial concerns (debt and/or gambling), generalised anxiety and depression can be found, making it difficult for women to get out and about and, in turn, they seek comfort in alcohol and drugs.  These issues have led to contact with the criminal justice system and often the arrest/offence has been a response to previous victimisation.

The extensive and complex needs of the women supported are being successfully addressed via the WONDER scheme, with onward referrals to services including domestic abuse support programmes, health and wellbeing services, support with children and families, accommodation providers, substance misuse providers and help in seeking employment.

Women report:

  • More confidence in dealing with financial and administrative matters; and facing up to issues that need dealing with
  • Beginning to address trauma
  • Being better able to keep appointments
  • Better financial stability
  • More confidence in getting out and about
  • Better self and domestic-care and renewed interests in hobbies, vocational pursuits (including an interest in voluntary work) and ultimately, employment
  • Reduced substance misuse (better strategies for dealing with difficulties)
  • Reduced likelihood of reoffending, across a range of offence types.

“From day one, my link worker has been my rock. She always listened and never judged me. Before I met her, I was a mess and giving up on life. Now, because of everything she has done for me, I have become the best person I can be and I can’t thank her enough.” (WONDER client)

“It really pulled me through a very difficult time. I’ve got so much to look forward to. I’ve got skills. I feel hopeful.” (WONDER client)

Hear more from WONDER clients on the St Giles Trust Soundcloud

PCC Lorne Green added: “Women offenders constitute 17% of the offender population in Norfolk. The majority do not pose a high risk of harm to the public, but their offending behaviour is often prolific and can have a significant impact on children and other family members.

“WONDER is bringing vital stability to the lives of these women as they work towards a brighter future. As well as seeing positive changes in their wellbeing, living skills and relationships, many of the women being supported have also been victims of crime, such as domestic or sexual abuse, so the project is also helping to prevent further harm and victimisation.”

“And we’re now seeing women who are nearing the end of their own WONDER journey offering peer support to those taking their first steps onto the programme.”

Assistant Chief Constable Julie Wvendth, of Norfolk Constabulary, added: “While we take a robust stance on crime and anti-social behaviour, any action taken against perpetrators needs to be appropriate and proportionate.

"However, we recognise that many of the people arrested and taken into our custody are vulnerable and often have complex backgrounds. This is why we are committed to working with our partners on projects like WONDER  in providing early intervention and support with the ultimate aim of keeping those people out of the criminal justice system.”