Evaluation of Women's Community Services (WCSs)

02 April 2013

A new evaluation of 'one-stop-shop' services for women offenders has concluded that although they provide the holistic approach necessary for for the complex needs of low risk women offenders, they have not become part of mainstream commissioning as hoped.

Forty-five Women's Community Services (WCSs) were set up between 2009 and 2013 as part of a joint funding initiative between the Corston Independent Funders Coalition (CIFC) and the Ministry of Justice. Six of these were the subject of an evaluation commissioned by CIFC and funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The evaluation was carried out by Polly Radcliffe and Gillian Hunter from the Institute of Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck.

In their evaluation report, the researchers argue that women offenders have complex needs and require a holistic, 'one-stop-shop' model of service. Women interviewed for the study describe the services as safe spaces. They had often been victims of sexual and physical violence and frequently reported how hearing other women’s stories made them realise they were not alone in their experience of violence.

The research highlights the isolation experienced by many of these women, and the importance of professional and peer support and access to specialist services.

The CIFC had hoped that WCSs would become integrated into mainstream commissioning. On the whole this has not happened, and the funding for these services is now very much in question. While the Ministry of Justice now requires evidence of outcome, the Localism agenda has meant that the services were set up without a common monitoring tool or specialist data gathering support. Lack of consistent data makes it difficult to make a robust business case for holistic, women-specific services for women serving community sentences.

The authors recommend that any future provision for women offenders should be accompanied by central investment in monitoring systems in order for outcomes and ‘distance travelled’ to be consistently tracked.

This research is published at a time of uncertainty in criminal justice policy and provision. In January this year, the Ministry of Justice announced the reorganisation of the supervision of offenders in the community, previously provided directly by or commissioned by probation services. The new contractors – including voluntary and private sector providers – are to be given Payment by Results contracts.

The Strategic objectives for female offenders published by the MoJ in March emphasise the importance of providing sentencers with alternatives to custody for low risk women offenders. This research demonstrates that unless services for women offenders in the community are made a provision of legislation, their sustainability cannot be guaranteed.