Breaking the cycle – A Senedd Committee finds the criminal justice system is failing Welsh women

Published 22/05/2023   |   Reading Time minutes

A “distinct, radically different” approach is needed – this was the finding of Baroness Corston’s ground-breaking report into the experiences of women in the criminal justice system in 2007. But since then, little has changed.

The report called for a stronger focus on the specific needs of women, and stressed the underlying reasons why men and women offend differ. It highlighted many women are themselves victims who’ve experienced childhood trauma, domestic abuse, substance misuse or mental ill-health.

Fifteen years on, there’s little evidence the reforms, on the scale called for in the Corston report, have been delivered. Despite broad acceptance of the need for a gendered approach to criminal justice, progress has been slow.

In 2022 the House of Commons Public Accounts and Justice Committees concluded that limited progress has been made in reducing the number of women in prison and developing alternatives to custody.

The Equality and Social Justice Committee inquiry

While justice and prisons are reserved to the UK Government, the Welsh Government has an important role to play in driving change. Many areas of the criminal justice system interact with devolved responsibilities including tackling substance misuse, physical and mental health, and housing.

The 2019 Women’s Justice Blueprint sets out how the Welsh Government intends to work with devolved and non-devolved partners, including the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). It aims to reduce the number of women in the justice system by intervening earlier and creating sustainable community-based solutions.

The Equality and Social Justice Committee’s March 2023 report commended the collaborative approach taken in Wales to develop the Blueprint and deliver programmes designed to support women at risk of offending or reoffending. This includes the Women’s Pathfinder Whole System Approach (WPWSA), which attempts to engage and work with women to identify their individual needs, and develop the women-centred approach recommended by Corston.

The Welsh Government accepted the Committee’s recommendation that the WPWSA be scaled-up and provided across Wales. This is expected to be in place by January 2024.

Despite this positive development, the Committee found that further action is needed to create the change Corston said was needed. For example, women continue to receive short custodial sentences, in the face of widespread acknowledgment that these contribute to a cycle of reoffending.

Three key recommendations from the report include:

A need for more women’s centres

Women’s Centres provide a one-stop shop where women can access information, advice, counselling and support in the form of one to one or drop in sessions. Many women accessing Women’s Centres face multiple challenges including housing, mental and physical health, and domestic abuse and criminal justice issues.

The Committee’s report echoed Corston’s findings on the value of women’s centres. It highlighted the pivotal role they can play in supporting women from early intervention, diversion, through to post-release support. It recommended strengthening this type of provision. While the Welsh Government agreed, it didn’t commit to more funding, only that it would be considered in “future budget rounds”.

Custodial sentences should be a last resort

The Committee was “shocked” to learn an average stay at HMP Eastwood Park was 42 days, and heard anecdotal evidence some women had been sentenced for less than a week. The Committee heard that, with no women’s prisons in Wales, short sentences can be particularly disruptive for children who, on average, will need to travel 100 miles to visit their mother.

Ensuring sentencers have sufficient and consistent alternatives to custody is a key priority. The Welsh Government accepted the recommendation to work with the MOJ and HMPPS to improve community-based alternatives, including developing accredited programmes and structured interventions.

Uncertain future for a Residential Women’s Centre pilot

The Committee focused on finding out more about the proposed Welsh Residential Women’s Centre pilot in Swansea. The Minister for Social Justice. Jane Hutt, said it would “complement the aims of the Blueprint in strengthening community-based provision for women” and that it is “vital that we get this right”.

Stakeholders had different views. Some urged caution about the residential element, the funding and management arrangements. The Committee felt strongly it shouldn’t replicate the harms of sending a woman to prison far from home. The Welsh Government accepted the recommendation to work with HMPPS to ensure the pilot aligns with the aims of the Blueprint.

The Welsh Government couldn’t clarify if the long-awaited pilot will actually go ahead. Planning permission is still being sought, having been initially rejected in November 2022, and it’s unclear if there’s a back-up plan if the pilot doesn’t go ahead on this particular site.

The “moral hazard”: more devolved powers over women’s involvement in the criminal justice system

The Committee found that the Welsh Government’s ability to transform services for women is frustrated by the constitutional settlement. Dr Robert Jones, author of the book ‘Welsh Criminal Justice System: On the Jagged Edge’, told the Committee that:

… the ability of devolved government to act as an effective policy maker is constrained and, ultimately, undermined by the fact that the UK Government controls most of the key criminal justice policy levers.

The First Minister has said there’s a “moral hazard” of providing funding for things that aren’t devolved:

… the Welsh Government finds itself always being expected to not just play our part in terms of joint working and so on, but funding things that really are not for us to fund in order to make them happen.

The Committee concluded the current devolution settlement was resulting in harm to women. It recommended the Welsh Government “should endeavour to obtain devolved responsibility for women’s involvement in the criminal justice system”. The Welsh Government agreed and reaffirmed its commitment to devolving justice in Wales, saying:

… outcomes for women in the criminal justice system in Wales could be significantly improved through devolution.

While committing to the Committee’s recommendation, the UK Government disagrees with the devolution of justice to Wales. Therefore, in the short-term, a focus on collaboration will be key to achieving the aims set out in the Women’s Justice Blueprint.

The Senedd will debate the Equality and Social Justice Committee’s report on Wednesday 24 May 2023. You can watch this on

Article by Claire Thomas, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament