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Progress in supporting women offenders?

Yesterday, 7th November, saw Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill launch his second annual progress report to the Parliament on the steps taken to implement the Commission on Women Offenders’ recommendations. Venture Trust's Next Steps programme is enabling women involved in offending to increase their employability, self-esteem and stability - all vital factors in supporting desistance from crime. Here, we highlight the importance of these factors in achieving real success in reducing reoffending amongst women from chaotic backgrounds.

Much of the progress report is cause for celebration. We're pleased to see a real commitment to long-term mentoring support, and a focus on the importance of an individually-tailored approach to enabling women to move away from offending. We're pleased, too, to see the great work of our friends and partners with whom we work closely at the Glasgow 218 Centre, Dundee Criminal Justice Social Work team, and the Willow centre in Edinburgh getting the profile and praise they deserve.

We share Mr. MacAskill's view "that there are a number of areas where progress will require substantial input and support from services outwith the criminal justice system if we are to deliver the changes the Commission recommended", and we're playing an increasingly important role in the 'SHINE' mentoring service for women. Just last week we led training and awareness sessions for all SHINE mentors.

Whilst progress has been made, there is very much still to do. Mr. MacAskill's report described the aims of the work to date as to "encourage women participating in the programme to consider their own offending behaviour and, as a result, reduce their offending in the future", and that the role of a mentor to "be persistent in engaging with a client who may be reluctant or whose resolve is lacking".

It's here that the report is at risk of missing a vital point. For many of the women we've supported via our Next Steps programme (over 50 of them since the report of the Commission, and more than double that number over the past three years), it's not simply a 'reluctance', or a 'lack of resolve' that leads to their offending. It's more fundamental than that, and harder to tackle. As we discussed in the Scotsman recently, more often their offending is meshed within a complex history of abuse, belittlement, isolation and poverty that has left women bereft of the confidence, motivation and vital lifeskills to take a different pathway; as much a consequence of their history as an active choice. It's certainly not the case that women can simply 'reconsider' their offending.

As such, the focus should not be on 'persuading' women to 'give up' offending, but on empowering them to make more positive choices, helping them develop the lifeskills they need to secure their futures, and providing specialist support to enable long-term, sustainable change in all areas of their lives. The support needs to be personalised, tackling each individual’s underlying belief and abilities rather than just their offending behaviours. It's this approach that forms the cornerstone of Venture Trust's Next Steps programme, and it's the reason that the women we support are able to make - and sustain - real change in their lives.

The recognition of the importance of tackling women's offending is to be praised, and the commitment to working toward more effective support is something Venture Trust supports 100%. Let's be careful, though, that we're enabling women to take charge of the change they're making in their lives, not simply replacing one 'intervention' with another.

To support our work with women seeking to make positive changes in their lives, please click here.

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