News In Focus
Special needs of women offenders should be addressed: report
17 April 2012
The needs of women offenders are not being properly met by a criminal justice system developed around the characteristics of male offenders, according to the Commission on Women Offenders under Dame Elish Angiolini QC, the former Lord Advocate.
The report of the Commission, published today, contains a string of "pragmatic" and "practical" recommendations which it hopes will "improve outcomes for local communities affected by the offences these women commit, as well as women offenders themselves".
Dame Elish was joined on the Commission by Sheriff Daniel Scullion of South Strathclyde, Dumfries & Galloway, and Dr Linda de Caestecker, Director of Public Health for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, and Honorary Professor at the University of Glasgow. Each member sat in a personal capacity and was not representing the views of any organisation or body.
Cornton Vale, the principal prison for women offenders, is condemned as "not fit for purpose", with overcrowding inhibiting the opportunities for rehabilitation, and the high incidence of mental health problems – 80% of inmates, according to a 2007 inspector's report – not being adequately addressed. Instead there should be a smaller specialist prison for those women offenders serving a statutory defined long-term sentence and those who present a significant risk to the public. Women prisoners on remand or serving short-term sentences should be held in local prisons, to improve liaison with local communities and reintegration once their sentence is complete.
There also remains a "lack of strategic leadership and accountability in the delivery of offender services in the
community", with short-term funding, inconsistent service provision and difficulties in measuring impact, all "inhibiting greatly" the potential to reduce reoffending. "This led us to conclude that a radical reform of existing systems and working practices was required", the report comments.
For men too
It adds that although the Commission's remit was restricted to issues affecting adult women in the criminal justice system, many of the proposals might also benefit male offenders, and be applied for economic and practical reasons across the whole offending population.
In addition to better strategic planning and co-ordination, the Commission wants to see, among many other points:
- new powers in relation to diversion from prosecution, including a new composite order containing both unpaid work and rehabilitative elements;
- better use of alternatives to remand, with more consistent bail supervision across the country;
- a pilot "problem solving summary criminal court" for repeat offenders (both male and female) with multiple and complex needs who commit lower level crimes;
- new sentencing options of a composite sentence of imprisonment comprising a custodial element and a community based element; and a suspended sentence;
- inter-agency protocols on prison discharge and homelessness for all areas of Scotland, "with the twin aims of sustaining tenancies when women are in custody and of securing access to safe accommodation for every woman prisoner upon release from custody".
"Finally," the report comments, "the evidence is now overwhelming that intervening in the early years of life will have
significantly more impact on rates of reoffending than intervening later in life. Parenting programmes and intensive family support have been shown to reduce conduct disorders in children, and reduce the likelihood that such children
will experience future problems with offending behaviour." It adds: "Early intervention must start with the mother."
Welcoming the report, Tom Halpin, chief executive of the offenders' charity Sacro, said: "We need to have consistently available community based alternatives to custody across Scotland: services that are tailored to the complex needs of these women. Services that empower these women, that build their confidence to change their lives. Services that include supported accommodation specifically for women offenders, which Sacro considers are vital."
He urged the Scottish Government "to respond decisively in support of the recommendations made, to seize this as the opportunity to lead Scotland into a new era in the way it treats women in our criminal justice system".
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said he also welcomed the report and would consider it in detail before making a formal response in the summer.