Female Prison Population to grow by a third, What can be done?

Aug 12, 2022

How the Criminal Justice System is failing women, and how a women’s centred approach could be the answer

How the criminal justice system is failing women. Close up image of the backs of four women arm in arm. they're wearing bright coats in purple and green.

Women and criminal justice 

According to the Justice Committee, the female prison population in the UK is set to grow by up to a third between 2021 and 2025. A report by a cross-party justice select committee said that the Government has failed to address pathways into the criminal justice system; from addiction to mental health and trauma. [1] [11]

Through this blog, Beyond the Streets will explore the reasons for this dramatic growth, some of the reasons women end up in the system, how they are being failed, and what can be done towards addressing this situation. 

From the 2021 Ministry of Justice (MoJ) report on prison population projections, we have learnt that the adult female prison population was 3,170 in 2021 and is expected to raise to 4,300 by July 2025. Analysts at the MoJ report their findings on of reason for this is to be: 

  • A post-pandemic rise in crime. 
  • Longer jail sentences. 
  • A backlog of 60,000 crown court cases which has grown by 20,000 since the pandemic. 

At Beyond the Streets, we also think additional factors that may contribute to this rise could include: 

  • The increased cost of living. 
  • The continuing effects of austerity. 
  • The reduction in the number of women’s refuges in the UK. 
  • Cuts to public services. 
  • A low number of specialist support services that are tailored to women with multiple disadvantages. 

The domestic abuse sector alone is facing a sustained funding crisis. According toLandscape image of a woman's head and shoulders side profile leaning against a brick wall outside that has blue and green graffitti on it. her hair is tied up but blowing in the wind. Women’s Aid, during 2019-20 57% of referrals to refuges were rejected, the primary reason being lack of space or capacity. [2]

The number of refuge bed spaces in England was 30% below the number recommended by the Council of Europe in 2020, and there were 294 refuge services in 2010 compared with 261 in 2020, just over an 11% decrease. [3]

Why is the decline in refuges and support services relevant? 

A review by Agenda and the Alliance for Youth Justice (2021) found links with young women’s offending and their experiences of violence, abuse, and exploitation by significant others in their lives, alongside mental health issues, poverty, early parenthood, experience of the care system and interrupted education or learning disabilities needs. Also, young women involved in the criminal justice system generally have more of these support needs than their male peers, meaning these unaddressed and additional multiple disadvantages can result in actions that are criminalised. [4]

One of the ways in which women find themselves in the criminal justice system is through selling sex.

Fifteen per cent of girls and young women (16–24) in contact with the criminal justice system have been involved in selling sex. [5]

Some women who are in contact with the criminal justice system are also accessing support with the charity Beyond the Streets; these are women who face specific vulnerabilities, and multiple disadvantages. These are people who may have experienced abuse, childhood or other trauma, homelessness, poverty, addiction, mental health issues, and learning difficulties or disability. [4]

For women who sell sex on the streets it can be said that they are most obviously criminalised, and often highly vulnerable (the illegal element being soliciting in public on the streets). This group often sees a great deal of stigma, and little understanding, especially in response to reports that come to light about violence against these women. 

Women who sell sex off-street face other challenges such as weighing up sharing accommodation with other women who sell sex as a safety measure and risking being charged for supporting a brothel, versus selling from an accommodation alone and risking harm or violence owing to the vulnerable position that puts women in. 

From our experience working with women at Beyond the Streets, women oftentop down illustration of a circle made from 5 diverse women's hands against a teal background find themselves being passed between services, such as mental health support, as they may fail to meet certain criteria due to their other ongoing challenges such as alcohol misuse. This is why Beyond the Streets works to support women for up to 2 years; advocating for them, helping them to access services and understand their options; walking alongside them on their path. 

There are many complex reasons as to why women enter selling sex.
Our Beyond the Streets ‘Beyond Support’ workers have highlighted that:

“The effect of adverse childhood trauma can’t be ignored as an integral factor in the selling of sex for many women. The same goes for imprisonment.” 

The projected rise in the female prison population speaks to the lack of trauma informed support available today, and a lack of recognition of the need for support avenues over prosecution.  

Challenging attitudes & perception 

There are issues around the attitudes of institutions towards some women. Revolving Doors, a charity that works to influence government officials, policymakers, and others, has conducted research which highlights adverse police attitudes towards women in repeat contact with the criminal justice system for their parenting, unemployment and poverty. This research has highlighted that: 

“Their research found that young women involved in sex work were found to face additional challenges and discrimination as a result of institutionalised prejudices against sex work and put themselves at greater risk of victimisation just to avoid further police contact. For example, some moved into isolated and dangerous work locations or did not report sexual and violent offences committed against them.” [6]

Women are often treated worse in the criminal justice system because of the notion of ‘double deviance’ where women are seen as not only violating the law, but violating ‘femininity’ and ‘womanhood’, and so their criminality is treated worse than that of men. [7]

The criminal justice system also often expects ‘typical’ behaviour of abused women and so when a woman who has been abused does not present like this ‘ideal victim’, she may not be believed or taken seriously (‘battered woman syndrome’). [8]

Hall, Whittle and Field (2015) also found that women are viewed more harshly than men and receive higher sentences, and that judges frequently rely on stereotypes and traditional notions of marriage, family and femininity when determining an offender’s sentence. [9]

Revolving door relevantly highlights research into the language that’s often adopted in discussions around the criminal justice system; in particular the binary of victim/offender. 

This oversimplification ignores the fact that criminal justice-involved women can, and often do, fall into both categories: ‘victim’ and ‘offender’, highlighting how damaging the use of these categories and their separate treatment can be. 

“Once we step outside the lexicon of the criminal justice system, we can begin to more clearly articulate the injuries and exclusion that characterise these women’s lives, as well as to be clear about the ways that the criminal justice system compounds and exacerbates the harms that they have experienced.” [4]

How Beyond the Streets challenge attitudes and perceptions

At Beyond the Streets, we work with other agencies such as local police to inform and train them about how to understand the many disadvantages that some women face that can lead to them selling sex, and how to walk alongside women using trauma-informed language. By sharing our learning from experience and commissioned research projects, we’re able to help other groups keep women safer. 

Find out more, book a training: https://beyondthestreets.org.uk/events/  

What is being done? How are women being supported? 

Government Interventions 

Some past developments have been made for women in the Justice system, including the Government’s Female Offender Strategy in 2018. The strategy recognised the needs of women in the criminal justice system; however, it has been said by commentators including Robert Neill MP that more needs to be done to assess women’s needs to target the right areas and make a meaningful impact.

The MoJ report on prison population projections has been described as a ‘disappointing read’ by Peter Dawson, in the Guardian in July 2022. 

Peter said that the only substantial investment the government has promised since its female offender strategy (published in 2018) is £150m to build 500 additional prison places for women. However, in the Government strategy, the stated aim is to reduce the number of women in custody, not increase it.

According to the Guardian, MPs have said that they are yet to see any clear evidence that more women are being diverted away from custody by improving ‘out of court disposals*’, which is the method that the government have intended to implement to address the situation. [10]

Beyond the Streets welcomes the Government’s interventions such as the Safer Streets Fund of £145m from 2021-23 which aims to reduce neighbourhood crime, anti-social behaviour and violence against women and girls. However, this doesn’t directly address the closure of refuges, or the under-funding of specialist services for women who have experienced trauma, abuse, disability and many other disadvantages. 

What are Beyond the Streets doing to alleviate routes in? 

By taking a woman-centred position, we work with women on a case-by-case basis and support her self-determination. 

We walk alongside women by offering specialist one to one phone calls and face to face chats where we help to open up the options, support women through their challenges; be they booking to leave an abusive partner, looking for different work, needing practical help such as booking a mental health appointment, providing harm reduction packs. 

Relationships exist between Beyond the Streets and local Police, the London Probation Service, and the Safer Neighbourhoods Team. We also provide Police officers and teams with information sessions and bespoke training sessions empowering them to better understand walking with women who sell sex to survive. 

These training sessions: 

  • expand the understanding of the complexities women face. 
  • equip them with the skills to engage sensitively. 
  • ensure widespread knowledge of referral pathways. 
  • raise awareness of the effectiveness of voluntary, consent-based approaches to the delivery of women’s services as opposed to mandatory approaches. 

We proactively seek out ways to amplify the voices and experiences of the women we support to improve outcomes for those in contact with the criminal justice system. 

We support women upon their release from prison, working with them to process trauma and find stable housing. 

Organisations like Beyond the Streets are all pieces of a complex, intersectional puzzle and the women we work with sadly all too often come into contact with the criminal justice system. 

The Government are introducing some measures to address some of the reasons why women enter the justice system and how to prevent this, however this has come in the wake of austerity, cuts, and removal of past measures; which has effectively led to a net loss for vulnerable people. 

The whole UK is facing financial challenges, but it could be argued that funding that supports disadvantaged women in the long run would prevent and reduce crime, and the costs associated with it. Working alongside charities such as Beyond the Streets helps to turn around the emphasis from punishment to support for more positive outcomes. 

Terms, Acronyms and Jargon: 

* Out of court disposal
An out of court disposal (OOCD) is a method of resolving an investigation for offenders of low-level crime and anti-social behaviour such as graffiti and low-level criminal damage, when the offender is known and admits the offence. An OOCD can only be used in limited circumstances. A driving principle for OOCDs is to reduce re-offending by enabling restorative1 and reparative2 justice 

Violence against women and girls 


[1] Ministry of Justice Report: Prison Population Projections 2021 to 2026, England
and Wales

[2] Novara media: Underfunding Women’s Refuges is State Violence

[3] Office for National Statistics: Domestic abuse victim services, England and Wales: November 2020 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/domesticabusevictimservicesenglandandwales/november2020#data-sources-and-quality 

[4] Revolving Doors: Broke, but not broken What the academic literature and young adults tell us about the interplay between poverty, inequality and repeat contact with policing https://revolving-doors.org.uk/publications/broke-not-broken/

[5] AGENDA: Young Women’s Justice Project Literature Review https://weareagenda.org/ywjp-literature-review/ 

[6] Revolving Doors: Lived experience perspectives on policing trauma, poverty and inequalities https://revolving-doors.org.uk/publications/knot-lived-experience-perspectives/ 

[7] Anette Ballinger: Women Who Kill their Male Partners  https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/mono/10.4324/9781315185606-6/women-kill-male-partners-anette-ballinger 

[8] Lenore E. A. Walker, EdD: The Battered Woman Syndrome https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Rq8-DAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=battered+woman+syndrome&ots=PBX_ZV4cwO&sig=JCDFElMAOiVr73h6ex2uzTjtrqI#v=onepage&q=battered%20woman%20syndrome&f=false 

[9] Hall, Whittle and Field: Themes in Judges’ Sentencing Remarks for Male and Female Domestic Murderers  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281596164_Themes_in_Judges’_Sentencing_Remarks_for_Male_and_Female_Domestic_Murderers  

[10] The Guardian: Women offenders still being jailed despite pledge to cut prisoner numbers, say MPs https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/jul/26/women-offenders-still-being-jailed-despite-pledge-to-cut-prisoner-numbers-say-mps?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Other 

Further Reading:

Justice Committee Report: Women in Prison – First Report of Session 2022–23  https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/23269/documents/169738/default/ 

More on ‘battered woman’ syndrome: https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= 

Ministry of Justice: Statistics on Women and the criminal justice system 2019  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/938360/statistics-on-women-and-the-criminal-justice-system-2019.pdf 

Women’s Aid: Funding crisis for domestic abuse sector with 64% of refuge referrals declined https://www.womensaid.org.uk/funding-crisis-for-domestic-abuse-sector-with-64-of-refuge-referrals-declined/