Opinion column: Mev Brown
The Report of the Commission on Women Offenders has some worthy objectives, but overlooks the root cause of most offending, and its true cost
The Commission on Women Offenders, chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini QC, published its findings of an eight-month review on women in the criminal justice system in April and the findings were debated at Holyrood later that month.
For a layperson, much of the report’s findings and the debate were laudable. Indeed, I found the tone of the language used reminiscent of that used by Winston Churchill on prison reform more than 100 years ago.
And anybody familiar with the issues of drug addiction among today’s inmate population will applaud the many pertinent recommendations addressing this issue.
So, will it be acted on and, if so, will it make a difference? Or will it join the many other reports on prison reform sitting on the shelf gathering dust?
In general, the political analysis and media coverage of the report have been favourable. But many political reporters have expressed concerns that politicians are becoming detached from the real world. Frontline professionals, myself included, see society from a different perspective. A gulf is forming.
Concerns have reached the point where I launched www.frontlinepolicy.org.uk as a platform for frontline professionals to bridge this gulf. And this report clearly demonstrates the need for such a platform.
The executive summary acknowledges the revolving door of addiction, offending and imprisonment. But it overlooks the social context.
While the mechanisms of tackling drug addiction are well established, the real challenge for policymakers today is not one of “how”, but one of scale.
In Scotland, there are 16,000 female addicts. Not all addicts fund their addiction from acquisitive crime, but the large majority do. This is why we have the revolving door. This is why the “old ways” cannot work.
The recommendations within this report could have made a real difference in the 1980s – but today? No. The Commission’s report is at least 25 years too late.
Beyond this, I would highlight two further oversights. First, the cost of reoffending. The executive summary states that “the estimated economic and social cost of reoffending over a 10-year period is, on average, more than £75,000 per female offender”.
But the focus should be on the cost of addiction. The Scottish Government’s 2009 report Assessing the Scale and Impact of Illicit Drug Markets in Scotland puts the total economic and social cost of illicit drug use in Scotland at just under £61,000 per problem drug user. This equates to £610,000 over a 10-year period.
There were 16,000 female addicts in Scotland at that time. This would put the annual cost for female problem drug users in Scotland at £976 million. The prison budget (£486 million) is dwarfed by this figure.
Secondly, the argument against short sentences. The report highlighted the fact that short prison sentences do not work. I agree. However, the above figures put the cost of imprisonment in a different context. It was stated in the parliamentary debate that only 2% of female inmates were considered “serious” offenders. It was also suggested that the rest “were not a threat to society”. It depends on how you interpret the word “threat”.
While the typical female inmate is hardly the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster’s arch-villain set on global domination, they can be something of a one-woman crime wave.
During the parliamentary debate, there was a commitment to protect the public as a high priority. But I couldn’t help but feel there was a general lack of empathy for the long-suffering public.
For example, offenders typically target poor communities, as wealthier home owners, while offering richer pickings, can afford the effective deterrent of a security system.
All members of the public have a right to feel safe in their own home. There is nothing worse than coming home and finding your front door forced or a window smashed open.
While I don’t advocate longer prison sentences per se, there is clearly a very valid argument in favour.
In 1960, there were 94 heroin addicts in the UK registered on the Home Office index. By 1979, that had risen to 2,400. Today, Scotland alone has an estimated 59,600 addicts.
The 2009 report put the total cost for drug abuse at £3.5 billion. Tinkering at the periphery of our drugs problem is, frankly, pointless.
We must tackle our drugs problem. Policymakers need to face up to and accept the reality and scale of the problem.
Clearly, we need some radical, new thinking. Not more of the same-old, same-old.
Mev Brown has worked with the homeless in Edinburgh for 10 years and founded frontlinepolicy in April