How the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland treats Females in Conflict with the Law

Publication: 09/11/21
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Criminal justice organisations urged to “do more” to respond to specific needs of female offenders

The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland Jacqui Durkin has called for criminal justice organisations to improve how they respond to the specific needs of women and girls under 18 suspected or convicted of committing a criminal offence.
Speaking today (9 November 2021) following the publication of the latest Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) report, Ms Durkin said this was the first time Inspectors had focused exclusively on how female offenders were treated by the police, prosecution, courts, prison, probation and youth justice services and how their offending was managed.

“Women and girls in Northern Ireland are most commonly prosecuted and convicted of motoring, violence and theft offences.  In 2019, they accounted for less than one fifth of court convictions but proportionately, more females were sent to prison for theft than males,” said Ms Durkin.

“Women and girls are also more likely to receive short prison sentences but their impact can be far reaching.  A short prison sentence for a mother can be life changing for her child.”

Ms Durkin said that Inspectors found evidence of professionals within criminal justice organisations who demonstrated genuine understanding of the specific needs of females and were working to help those in crisis, were developing and delivering women-only services and were supporting females in custody and on their release.

However, with rising numbers of female offenders entering prison before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms Durkin said it was imperative criminal justice organisations do more to develop and deliver female focused interventions and outcomes that met their specific needs.

“Gender awareness and responsiveness is not about applying a different standard to police actions, prosecution decisions or sentencing because the defendant is a woman or girl.  Enforcing laws and bringing offenders to justice, as well as considering the impact of crime on victims, must prevail,” said the Chief Inspector.

“The treatment of females by the criminal justice system must take account of the specific issues and sensitivities affecting women and girls to deliver outcomes that are equitable.  

“During this inspection Inspectors spoke to women and girls to hear first-hand about their experience.  We learned criminal justice approaches could overlook specific vulnerabilities, the experiences that may contribute to a woman or girls’ journey into offending behaviour and that non-custodial sentences could be challenging to complete, if issues like childcare needs were not taken into account,” said Ms Durkin.

“This inspection report makes three strategic and five operational recommendations for improvement to help achieve the change we believe is required.

“The new Department of Justice (DoJ) strategy under development to support and challenge women and girls in contact with the criminal justice system, offers a real opportunity to succeed where other strategies have not.  It can’t be another strategy that just sits on the shelf,” said the Chief Inspector. 

“It requires effective leadership, commitment from each of the partner organisations and adequate resources to deliver outcomes for women and girls that make a difference.  As part of this, we have recommended the operational recommendations included in this report should be actioned as part of the DoJ strategy and supporting action plan.”

Ms Durkin said Inspectors had also recommended the DoJ, in partnership with the police prosecution, courts, prison, probation and youth justice services, should develop and deliver a framework to safeguard the best interests of children affected by parental involvement in the criminal justice system within the next nine months.

She also called for work to be carried out to develop expectations to guide how criminal justice organisations work with females in custody and in the community.  In addition, a network of ‘champions’ should be established in each of the organisations to focus on females generally and on specific groups of women and girls, and deliver a more gender responsive approach by summer 2022.

“Awareness of issues affecting women and girls are currently in the public eye like never before.  It is timely for our criminal justice organisations to consider some of the most challenging and vulnerable people in conflict with the law, their criminal justice system journey and the opportunities we have to provide better services and outcomes now and in the future,” Ms Durkin concluded.