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MSPs concerned over women in jail

10 November 2009

The sentencing of women with mental health problems and their treatment by the criminal justice system needs to be re-examined by the Scottish Government, according to MSPs.

In a report published today, the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee says that more could and should be done to rehabilitate women in prison, particularly those serving short-term sentences and those on remand, to prevent them reoffending.

According to the report, four out of five female inmates have mental health problems, almost all have problems with drug or alcohol addiction and many have children on the outside. The committee calls for more to be done to tackle the drugs problem at Cornton Vale, Scotland's only female prison.

It also recommends improved language and literacy services at Cornton Vale, and stresses the importance of improving relationships between imprisoned mothers and their children.

The committee further recommended:

  • the Scottish Government should explain how they will address the issue of women being more harshly sentenced than men;
  • more, and better funded, female-appropriate community sentences;
  • better co-ordination to improve links between women in prison and those who can help them when they go back to their communities.

Different experience

Committee Convener Margaret Mitchell MSP said: “While the report’s focus is on female offenders, this does not mean that the committee is not interested in male offenders or that it considers female offenders should be treated more favourably than male offenders.

"However, there is clear evidence that in some situations men and women should be treated differently. The committee learned that women’s experiences of the criminal justice system are different from men’s and that some of these differences may stem from or result in discrimination or inequality.

"Given this, more action needs to be taken by the Scottish Government and other public bodies to prevent reoffending by female offenders, by fully addressing their needs and individual circumstances."

She added that members of the committee were deeply concerned to hear that some women deliberately commit offences purely to access the services provided in Cornton Vale.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said: "It's clear that more and more people, including this committee, are agreeing with the Scottish Government's position that prison should only be for the serious offenders who commit the serious crimes.

"That's why we have been working hard to ensure more low level offenders are given the chance to address the underlying causes of their behaviour rather than serve ineffective short jail sentences."

Treatment

Sacro, the community justice charity, also welcomed the report. In a statement it said: "Although the report highlights the many ways in which women are being failed by the current system, it is encouraging to see action being taken and positive changes being recommended.

Referring to the prevalence of abuse, poverty and substance misuse, Sacro added: "By intervening at the earliest opportunity and at the lowest appropriate level, Sacro believes there is a good chance that many of these women can be led to the treatment and health and social care they require to help them address their offending behaviour. By doing this within the community, it also allows for continued access to their children and other social supports so important to their welfare."

It concluded: "Early intervention within the community to treat health, addiction, social and abuse issues, greater provision of throughcare services and specialised mentoring services for women offenders leaving prison can have a far greater impact on cutting the cycle of reoffending than imprisonment ever can."

Click here to view the report.

 

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