Media Release

Raab must end women’s unnecessary suffering in the criminal justice system

Dominic Raab, the new justice secretary, should make a national priority of reforming a criminal justice system that frequently fails abused and vulnerable women, a think-tank says today.

The Social Market Foundation said that too many female prisoners suffer mental health problems and highlighted widespread self-harm in women’s prisons. More than half of women in prison have suffered domestic abuse earlier in life.

Despite growing concern across society about violence and misogynistic abuse of women, the SMF found that the criminal justice system still often fails women who have suffered such abuse before offending. The Government’s construction of 500 new prison places has also sent mixed messages.

The SMF called upon Raab to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the Female Offender Strategy as part of a national conversation about how to do better for vulnerable women.

The Female Offender Strategy was launched in 2018. It pledged to reduce the number of short sentences handed down and the overall female prison population, as well as improving conditions.

Research from the Prison Reform Trust has found that less than half of the 65 pledges in the Strategy have been fully implemented.

However the SMF warned that progress appears to be stalling on the Strategy. The report highlights the vulnerability of many female prisoners, citing estimates that:

  • 71% consider themselves to have mental health issues
  • 60% of those assessed have experienced domestic abuse
  • 48% believe they have a disability
  • 46% say they entered prison with a drug problem

Self-harm in prisons is described as “an epidemic”, with the number of incidents in women’s prisons rising 71% between 2017 and 2020.

One expert told the SMF:“I don’t think we can overstate how dreadful the current picture is…the reality is absolutely appalling”.

Dr Aveek Bhattacharya of the SMF said that Raab has an opportunity to show “real leadership” by tackling national neglect of abused and vulnerable women in the criminal justice system.

He said:

“The government has recognised in the female offender strategy that the criminal justice system too often fails vulnerable women. Yet the recent loss of momentum in implementing the strategy is concerning.
“Dominic Raab has a chance to show real leadership here.  He needs to make this issue – and those women – more important. That means concerted action to reduce prison numbers and improve conditions, embedded in a national conversation about protecting vulnerable women.

The Government has called its reforms “ambitious”, but since announcing the creation of 500 new prison places for women earlier this year confidence in ministers’ commitments has come into question.

3,850 women were in prison at the time of Strategy’s launch. The most recent data show 3,196 women in prison, but this fall is likely due to backlogs in court cases caused by the pandemic.

The SMF said the government should explicitly commit to decommissioning old prison places on a “one-in, one-out” basis as new places enter service.

Efforts should be made to push the overall number of women in prison to around 1,000, in line with sentencing rates from the 1980s.The overall female prison population remains historically high (see figure 3)

Meanwhile the government has rejected a proposed amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill that would have provided a statutory defence for women driven or compelled to commit a crime as a result of domestic abuse.

The SMF said opposition parties and backbench MPs should do more to scrutinise the government on criminal justice reform.

Rhodri Williams, Head of International Public Policy, AIG (the sponsor of the project) said:

“As a company firmly committed to the campaign against racial and social injustice wherever it occurs, AIG is pleased to have supported this important report from the Social Market Foundation, which highlights a glaring source of unfairness in the criminal justice system. The SMF’s detailed research and analysis provides a valuable starting point for an invigorated policy conversation about ways in which the system must change if it is to offer fairer, more equitable outcomes to female offenders.” 


  • The SMF report, Women in the criminal justice system: a better response to vulnerability, was published [23.09.2021 at 10:30am] at
  • The report was sponsored by AIG and informed by a roundtable of sector experts, charities and senior policymakers. The SMF retained full editorial independence.


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