Things need to change for women completing community-based sentences

All     Case Studies     Guest Articles     News    

Careers in Justice is always interested in learning more about working in criminal justice and aims to give you the most comprehensive overview of what working in the justice sector is really like. In light of this, we spoke to Omar Phoenix Khan, a criminal justice reform consultant and founder of Justice Focus. He has kindly written an article for us on the challenges and difficulties facing women in the Justice sector.

As with most institutions globally, the justice system has largely been conceptualised and created by men for male offenders. Relatively little thought has been given to the differing needs and experiences of women and girls in the system.

Many examinations have found that prison is rarely required for women and in England and Wales and the Justice Select Committee concluded that “prison is an expensive and ineffective way of dealing with many women offenders who do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety" [1]

In fact, of those women currently serving a custodial sentence, 84% have been convicted of non-violent crimes [2]. Alternative community-based sentences have been shown to be cheaper for the state and more effective in reducing reoffending.

Research on the topic has largely focused on the male population, however, in 2010 the United Nations ‘Bangkok Rules’ [3], were created in recognition that there is a greater need to consider the background of women, as well as their current circumstances, such as pregnancy, being a mother or having other caretaking responsibilities, their employment status, their place of residency and whether they have any support from family etc. However, even within these international standards, the focus was largely on women in custody and those serving community-based sentences are largely overlooked.

Slowly tools are being developed in order to work more effectively with women in the community, yet many of the resources both in the UK and internationally remain gender-neutral. By making the tools gender-sensitive instead, it allows for greater understanding of the individual’s situation and needs, which leads to a more effective sentence plan and greater chance to avoid reoffending.

I recently evaluated a project in Kenya, conducted by Penal Reform International and the Kenya Probation and Aftercare Service and funded by the Thailand Institute of Justice, to improve the approach to working with women completing probation and community service orders [4]. After research on the ground with women going through the system, evidence-based adaptations were made to the pre-sentence reporting structure and probation officers were trained in a gender-sensitive approach. I then went to speak to the officers to find out whether the intervention had been effective.

The response from the probation officers was overwhelmingly positive. Many of the officers explained that they felt that they had always intuitively treated women differently, but that learning about the Bangkok Rules and the new approach allowed them to crystallise their thinking and gave them an evidence backing for their own recommendations to magistrates. One officer explained:

“Before I thought an offender is an offender, and it doesn’t matter if they are male or female. My thinking was there is no excuse for committing a crime. But after I have gotten a change of perception. Now I take a little more time to dig deeper and find out more and what really caused them to offend” [5].

Clearly, what is required for women in Kenya may be different to those required for women in UK, Pakistan or Brazil, and that is why there is a great need for more context specific research looking at gender roles and experience of women completing non-custodial sentences.

The evaluation concluded with the illustration of a replicable model for implementing a gender-sensitive approach, which highlights the importance of initial context-specific research and recommendations. I look forward to a greater level of discussion and debate on how to more effectively work with women in the community.

You can read the evaluation of a gender-sensitive approach to probation and community service orders in Kenya on the Justice Focus website here.


Omar Phoenix Khan – Omar is a criminal justice reform consultant and founder of Justice Focus. He specialises in the management and evaluation of justice reform projects with government departments both in the UK and abroad. Omar focuses on alternatives to imprisonment and diversion, reducing pre-trial detention and improving equality and diversity in prisons and probation.