Imogen Cheatham, Policy Officer from the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner’s Office, explains how the New Chance Project provides the right support for vulnerable women at the very start of their contact with the criminal justice system.
What is the New Chance project?
New Chance is a diversion scheme for women, operating across the entire West Midlands Police Force area. The programme, originally delivered in Birmingham, Sandwell and Dudley, was rolled out across the seven West Midlands Local Authority areas in April 2020. Access to the project is facilitated by the West Midlands Police, who make referrals for women they come into contact with, into a programme of tailored support.
Eligible participants are women over the age of 18 years old, who have committed a low level offence and are eligible for an out of court disposal. The referral pathway has recently been extended to women with offending behaviour known through the Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC).
What does the project involve?
New Chance is run outside the structures of the justice system, and delivered by third sector organisations, including Anawim, Black Country Women’s Aid, Changing Lives and Fry Accord Housing Association. The programme of support is tailored to each woman’s specific needs, and lasts for as long as it is asked for. Access is provided to counselling, support groups and other specialist services to deal with long-term issues around trauma, abuse and mental health. Caseworkers also offer practical help to resolve more immediate issues, such as managing debt, health concerns, homelessness and sex work.
Why was the project set up?
The project has been running since 2016, and was set up to address the pattern of repeat offending committed by vulnerable individuals, who were being caught up in the criminal justice system time and time again. By trading this process with enrolment in a programme of specialist support, New Chance seeks to tackle the underlying problems that are often behind offending behaviour, and circumvents the damaging impact that comes with a criminal record.
The project seeks to move past the usual conceptualisation of women as either a victim or an offender, recognising the more complex reality that many experience both; as a result of trauma and victimisation caused by struggles with domestic violence, poverty, mental health and addiction. In 2019, 80% of the women participating in the programme had disclosed victimisation, 20% had experienced sexual violence and 10% had experienced childhood sexual abuse.
How successful has the project been?
An evaluation conducted by the University of Birmingham in 2020 found that New Chance successfully reduced reoffending by 16%. For participants with substance misuse issues, this rose to 50%.
Jacqui* from Birmingham explains the impact New Chance has had on her life:
“I started a relationship with a man who became very controlling and violent. With no money and no way of feeding my children, I regret to say I took to stealing food from shops. Before long I got caught. I explained to the police officers what was happening at home and before long I was receiving the right kind of help. Without New Chance I would have either ended up in prison or dead.”
What has been the impact of the Covid19 pandemic?
Like many frontline services in 2020, New Chance was forced to adapt its programme and make much of its support virtual. Imogen describes how the service initially witnessed falling rates of referrals during the pandemic, possibly as a result of lockdown measures reducing contact with the police. She adds that there have also been positives outcomes, such as finding virtual sessions to be less disruptive, as it reduces time spent travelling to appointments. Others have described finding it easier to share more in a virtual setting. As Imogen explains, “the physical separation has allowed for greater closeness”.
The backlog of court cases in England and Wales, exacerbated by the suspension of trials during the pandemic, has made schemes like this one even more important, with it’s potential to free up court time and resources.
For more information please contact Imogen Cheatham firstname.lastname@example.org
* Names have been altered to protect privacy
This case-study was compiled in 2021