Counting the cost of chaos: The billions we can save by saving lives

Antonia Bance looks at a new report showing an £18 million investment for women living in chaos could save many lives and more than £1 billion pounds over the next five years.

By Antonia Bance, Advocacy Director for The Corston Independent Funders’ Coalition

Alex (not her real name) was physically and sexually abused as a child, taken into care, and at 15 started using heroin. Now in her twenties, she is arrested several times each month, has convictions for street robbery and burglary, and has never had a permanent home. Alex prefers being in prison to being out, as inside she has food, security and structure.

In England, there are estimated to be around 84,000 women who, like Alex, have chaotic lifestyles and multiple needs. There are about 83,000 female problem drug users, and around 80,000 women who sell sex in the UK.

Every crisis service knows them – A&E nurses, custody sergeants, social services, domestic violence advocates, homeless shelters… but effective projects able to help women out of chaos are few.

On Tuesday, the Revolving Doors Agency and the Corston Coalition published new research (pdf) into the costs to the public purse of women living with chaos – and the savings which could be made if effective interventions were available.

The cost of living with chaos and crime to individual women is huge – with low life expectancy, likelihood that children are taken into care and a high risk of exploitation, violence and abuse. The costs to the public purse are also huge – rising to £378,300 over five years for the most entrenched women. After the cost of providing support, successful interventions could save significant sums of public money – between £47,000 and £264,000 per woman over five years depending on her support needs.

The interventions studied by Revolving Doors were one-stop-shop services with a particular criminal justice focus. From women-only centres, they enable women to complete community punishments, get help with accommodation, drug or alcohol abuse, mental health and finances, deal with the legacy of violence and abuse, and change their lives.

An investment of £18 million per year England-wide in similar services could reduce the cost to the state by £384m over three years and almost £1 billion over five years. Yesterday the Ministry of Justice announced, jointly with the Corston Coalition, a rescue fund to ensure that existing women’s one-stop-shop services threatened with closure can remain open. The MoJ have also announced that the department will commission effective women’s services from 2012 onwards.

This research makes clear the savings that could be achieved if every town and city had a dedicated centre for women living with chaos and multiple needs. Prison should no longer be the last safety net for women like Alex.

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