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A ground-breaking report by the Prison Reform Trust has suggested that women in prison have often been the victims of offences that are more serious offences than the ones they have been convicted of.

The research also confirmed that women often encounter a “culture of disbelief in the criminal justice system” about the violence and exploitation they may have faced.

Cycle of victimisation

The report, entitled “There’s a reason we’re in trouble” – shows domestic abuse as a driver to women’s offending. It found that 57% of women in prison report having been victims of domestic violence with 53% having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child compared to 27% of men. The study identified strong links between women’s experience of domestic and sexual abuse and coercive relationships, and their offending.

Every year, about 13,000 women are imprisoned – double the figure in the 1990s – with many on remand or serving short sentences for non-violent offences.

As a consequence, women can become trapped in a vicious cycle of victimisation and criminal activity with their situation made worse by poverty, substance dependency or poor mental health. This research points the way for reforms for probation officers, those in offender health roles and even substance misuse specialists to create a safe environment for women to talk about these unhealthy relationships and help them break the ties that encourage them to reoffend.

Trapped in unhealthy relationships

The PRT worked with User Voice and Advance in England, Llamau in Wales, and the 218 Service in Scotland to produce the findings with researchers speaking to women about their experiences of committing offences under pressure from a partner, on behalf of a partner, or to protect the partner or themselves, in connection with domestic abuse. Offences they were committing as a consequence range from shoplifting to selling drugs with the behaviour often to support a partner’s drug use.

While women felt trapped in these unhealthy relationships, they also said the police were rarely sympathetic or helpful to them as victims of domestic abuse, and did not demonstrate an understanding of the dynamics of abusive relationships. Women were also often unwilling to support criminal proceedings against their abuser with fear of later reprisals being a factor.

Recommendations to cut abuse and imprisonment for women

The PRT report recommends the Home Office and Ministry of Justice should work closely with the Welsh government to ensure the forthcoming women offenders’ strategy addresses the extent to which domestic and sexual abuse impact on the lives of women offenders.

Calling for the police, prosecuting authorities, probation services and the courts to factor in histories of domestic abuse and sexual violence when dealing with female offenders, the document also highlights the lack of any effective defence for women victims of domestic abuse whose offences arise from coercion when in an abusive relationship.

Jenny Earle, director of the charity’s programme to reduce women’s imprisonment, said: “Our recommendations have been developed in consultation with women who have been personally driven to commit crimes by violent partners, and the services that support them. If implemented we would see both a reduction in the incidence of domestic abuse and fewer women unnecessarily imprisoned.”
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