Evaluation of Sixteen Women's Community Justice Services in Scotland

This document presents the findings of an evaluation of sixteen women’s community justice services in Scotland. The evaluation was conducted by the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (IRISS) during 2014-15.

Executive Summary


In 2013-15, the Scottish Government funded 16 projects proposed by criminal justice partners across Scotland to develop community services for women who offend. Developments were based on existing service provision and to ensure changes could be sustained locally at the end of the funding. Funding varied in amount and timeframes. Most of the projects were undertaken by local authority criminal justice social work[1] (CJSW) departments with partner providers, including public and third sector agencies.

The national evaluation examined how the 16 women's community justice services (WCJSs) were implemented and to what extent they contributed towards positive outcomes for women. A further aim was to build local capacity for self-evaluation in WCJSs. Findings were drawn from two phases of interviews with practitioners and women, secondary documents, and quantitative data for 1,778 women who were in the WCJSs between April and December 2014. This included outcomes data for 406 women.


Developing women's community justice services

The 16 projects used the funding to establish new or develop existing WCJSs. There were three models of service delivery: women's centres (3), CJSW workers or women's teams (6), and 'community hubs' (3). Four standalone projects were also undertaken, which included a registered mental health nurse to work with women in existing services across three local authorities, a diversion ('early intervention') pilot, a court-based service to inform remand decisions, and a scoping project for one region to establish a women's service.

Reconfiguring or establishing new services was not a quick process; most projects experienced delays recruiting staff and setting up new premises. Critical elements for successfully developing services included establishing effective partnerships, employing the 'right staff', creating an environment in which there was commitment and flexibility to trial new ways of working. Practitioners mostly felt their skills and knowledge in working with women were learnt 'on-the-job' and did not identify gaps in gender-specific training.

Centres worked well in urban areas with a concentrated population of women. Delivering multi-disciplinary support from hubs was appropriate in areas with dispersed populations. Across all WCJS models, flexibility to do individual outreach was important, particularly in rural areas, at the early stages of a woman's involvement, or for women who experienced difficulties engaging.

Characteristics of the women in services

The average age of women in WCJSs was 34 years (ranging from 16 to 68 years) and the majority were White British. Half of all women were mothers to children under 16; one third of women lived with their children, while just over one third had access to their children in the care of others. Combined, they were mothers to almost 1,600 children. Most women had 'medium' to 'very high' LS/CMI scores (which measure risk and need) and were likely to have previous convictions.

Women often entered WCJSs with multiple and complex needs. On average, women entered with six of the 14 needs assessed using a standardised questionnaire. The most common issues women presented with were poor mental/emotional health (78%), lack of purposeful or rewarding activities such as ways to spend their time (52%) or work, volunteering or training (61%), substance misuse (59%), difficulties in solving everyday problems (59%), and unstable or unsupportive family/ social relationships (58%). There was also an indication of high rates of trauma or abuse, where measured (55-89%). Women were less likely to have physical (26%) or sexual health needs (9%) or hold a view that offending was acceptable (24%) or believe they couldn't or did not know how to stop offending (26%).

The role of WCJSs in the Scottish Criminal Justice System

While WCJSs worked with women across multiple stages of the criminal justice system, services mostly supported and/or supervised women serving community sentences. Overall, 68%[2] of women attended WCJSs on a statutory basis, of whom 87% were serving a Community Payback Order (CPO). For these women, most WCJSs supervised the requirements of women's orders such as unpaid work and/or offending-focused groupwork. Other women engaged voluntarily (32%), although they may have had an order supervised out-with the WCJS.

A small proportion of women in WCJSs were receiving support either in preparation for or post release from prison, or on diversion. Few WCJSs undertook preventative work.

Holistic support for women

WCJSs provided or coordinated practical and emotional support to women on a one-to-one basis, in groupwork and/or drop-in sessions, which was underpinned by trusting relationships between women and their worker(s). Women worked with their key worker to prioritise support appropriate to their needs and circumstances. Women most typically received support to stabilise their lives, link into appropriate services, and address practical, immediate issues (e.g. to secure stable housing, stabilise or reduce substance misuse, develop skills to solve everyday problems, and build confidence and positive mental health). Achieving progress in these areas was often necessary before working with women on longer-term goals, such as preparation for volunteering, work or training.

The co-location or links with multi-disciplinary professionals in many WCJSs enabled women to access practical support for multiple issues in one place. Workers in multi-disciplinary women's teams or centres felt they were better equipped and had greater flexibility to respond to women's complex needs at the right time. This worked best when WCJSs had formal arrangements with partner agencies rather than relying on informal networks.

Other features of WCJSs that women and/or practitioners commonly identified as being important were:

  • Women-only premises located near women's local communities, and based outside CJSW premises where possible
  • Supportive relationships built in an informal, safe environment, that enable women to connect with workers and other women in a way that many had not experienced in previous services or through supervision alone
  • Practitioners with qualities valued by women, such as being willing to listen, non-judgemental, optimistic about women's potential for change, and available for emotional support
  • Practical help to overcome barriers to accessing services often experienced by women with complex needs (e.g. flexible appointments and follow-up in contrast to mainstream services in which women may be 'taken off the books' after a series of missed appointments.)
  • Sequenced support, which prioritises stability, readiness to change and immediate needs, before progressing to longer term outcomes
  • A distinct women's 'team' or worker
  • An 'open door' for women to return for further help if they need reassurance or a 'safety net' on exit
  • A relational, strengths-based approach to working with women that treats women as individuals first rather than 'offenders'.

Outcomes for women

Outcomes reported here took place in a limited timeframe of engagement with services (an average of five months); long-term changes will take more time to materialise. Progress was assessed for 406 women against 14 outcomes (see Annex D), which included short, medium and long-term outcomes linked to desistance.

Overall, the majority of women experienced improvements in at least one outcome (83%) and on average four of the 14 measures. WCJSs were most effective in areas that help women stabilise their lives and promote their readiness to change. Not surprisingly women tended to make most progress in short-term outcomes, including problem solving (58% of women improved), engagement with services (57%), willingness to work on problems (54%), emotional and mental health (52%), housing (56%), and substance misuse (52%).[3]

Women attributed this positive change in their lives to a combination of factors. Progress tended to occur when women were stable (e.g. in safe and secure housing, had stabilised substance misuse), felt motivated to change, felt supported or encouraged by workers or a person they trusted, and had opportunities or access to support at the appropriate time. This underlines the importance of properly sequenced holistic support and the often-described 'softer' outcomes that support women to make and sustain changes in their lives.

Progress was less likely in other (longer-term) outcomes, including securing work, volunteering or training (29%), finding positive or rewarding ways to spend their time (36%), improved family relationships (37%), or consistent views that offending is unacceptable (38%, albeit that such views were held by a small proportion of women on entry).[4] WCJSs were less likely to directly address some of these needs within the short timescales of the evaluation. Women's progress was not always linear and some women experienced setbacks or no change in some areas.

These findings highlight the importance of having realistic expectations for individuals with complex needs and recognising the gradual and long-term nature of change for some women. The role of broader social structures or other factors (out-with the control of WCJSs) also influence women's progress in the communities they live (e.g. stigma and employment opportunities).


The findings suggest that the extended provision of community services supported women to make observable progress towards outcomes associated with desistance during the limited timeframes in which WCJSs were evaluated.

The holistic approach of WCJSs offered a genuinely enhanced service alternative to traditional CJSW supervision for women, made possible by practitioners who worked with women as individuals with strengths, needs, and aspirations. It also required CJSW departments, partner agencies, and practitioners to be open to adopting new and flexible ways of working.

A key role of WCJSs was supporting women to engage with other services (including universal services). This was achieved by both multidisciplinary working (e.g. co-located professionals, direct referrals) and helping women to develop their confidence, communication and self-presentation skills, to enable them to access services independently. This in turn can benefit external agencies (e.g. more efficient referrals and attendance).

The evaluation identified potential gaps in service provision that may be considered in future initiatives, including more opportunities for women to develop rewarding activities and forge links in the community, support for mothers in WCJSs, and provision for voluntary throughcare, which many WCJSs were looking to strengthen.

Practitioners' main aspirations for the future of WCJSs included the on-going aim to build services' reputation and credibility (e.g. with sentencers), evidence their effectiveness on long-term outcomes, and ensure sustainability. Findings also indicated the practical limits upon WCJSs' capacity given the unpredictable and resource-intense nature of female caseloads and flexible service delivery.

Overall, the findings provide a strong rationale to continue the WCJS approach, in which locally defined services adopt holistic, gender-responsive, and flexible practices. The findings add to the growing evidence that such approaches can effect positive change in areas of women's lives that are known to support desistance.


Email: Tamsyn Wilson

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