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Ground breaking project helps women offenders

12 November, 2014

Women across East Lancashire have been diverted away from the criminal justice system thanks to an innovative new project being piloted in Blackburn.

The Early Action initiative called ‘Avert’ was launched by Lancashire Police and Lancashire Women’s Centres in November 2013 and the trial ran until June 2014. Following its success funding has now been secured until March 2015.

The project began in Blackburn and Darwen and has expanded to include Accrington and the surrounding areas, with referrals to the project made from Greenbank custody suite and implemented within Eastern Lancashire Women’s Centres.

Avert aims to divert both low level and persistent female offenders through conditional caution or voluntary referral. The most common offences are drunk and disorderly, shoplifting and assault. It provides a different route into support services for women who would otherwise not have accessed support but to be suitable they must first admit the offence.

Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw said: “This is a unique initiative which I have funded alongside the Rayne Foundation.

“It focuses on providing early intervention and diverting women away from custody rather than trying to pick up the pieces once they have already been prosecuted and processed through the criminal justice system.

“These are the mothers of our next generation. Let me be clear this is not tea and sympathy. Engagement is often the tougher choice as many of these women are facing up to deep seeded issues and have often been victims of crime themselves.

“There is growing evidence that contact with the criminal justice system  can turn first time offenders into career criminals  by creating a ‘revolving door’. Avert provides another route into support services for women who otherwise would not have received any support.”

Research shows that women prisoners are far more likely than men to be primary carers of young children and this makes contact with the criminal justice system significantly different for them.

A range of vulnerabilities were apparent in Avert participants, the most commonly experienced  issues were around mental health concerns, childhood sexual abuse, bereavement, drug and alcohol addictions, social disadvantage and mothers being separated from their children.

Current criminal justice policy is focussed around reducing reoffending, intervening at an earlier stage and tackling the underlying causes of offending behaviour. Police are keen to work with key partners within Lancashire to find other ways of diverting women away from the criminal justice system whilst reaping the wider social benefits.

Head of Early Action for Lancashire Constabulary, T/Superintendent Andrea Barrow said: “This project came about as a result of an identified gap in the provision for women coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

“There was no support in place to capture low-level, low-risk offending women through early intervention strategies, capturing them before they became caught in a spiral of crisis.

“Women referred to Avert often have complex needs and the scheme enables them to access any range of services that Lancashire Women’s Centres ordinarily offer including counselling, job clubs and housing and debt advice.

“Avert staff provide a one-stop-shop that allows women to address the underlying causes of their offending behaviour in a safe and non-judgemental environment, aimed to prevent further offending. The centre can also facilitate Restorative Justice which has been shown to have a positive effect to prevent future offending and is based on evidence of what works with female offenders.”

Since the project began almost 200 hundred women have been offered Avert which has led to 128 referrals being made. When women are referred to Avert they agree to attend three appointments at one of the East Lancashire Women’s Centres within a twelve week period where intensive one to one support is given.

Following their participation in the project, 93% of participants have not reoffended. They also spoke of improved confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy.

One of the women who took part in the project, ‘Teri’, said: “If I hadn’t made the decision, I think I would have been inside by now. Because I wouldn’t have stopped and they’d have been pushing me and pushing me. And I would have just got worse. Yeah so I do feel like, seeing a case working that it has helped.”

Another participant ‘Sarah’ said: “I’ve had enough now. I just need to get help. I can’t go on life being nasty…since the referrals gone in I’m not, I’ve not even associated with them people. I don’t want anything to do with them…She’s been helping me. She has, she’s been making me think more. I took an overdose in November, cry for help. And my kids got took off me. They’ve gone to live with their dad so I’m going through a lot.”

CEO for Lancashire and Cumbria Women’s Centres, Sarah Swindley said: “Avert allows us to integrate women back into society, able to manage everyday struggles in a more positive way.

“It has offered women a second chance to remove themselves from what had become for some a cycle of offending.”

The cost of putting women through this programme is significantly cheaper than arresting them and putting them through the criminal justice system.

Following its success in East Lancashire the project is now looking at being rolled out in Blackpool and long term across Lancashire.

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