Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 2:30 pm, 13th April 2005

The figures that I quoted are a snapshot of the women's prison population in the past week, but Stewart Stevenson makes an interesting point, which relates closely to the work that we are trying to do, particularly in dealing with those short-term sentences. I shall go on to say a bit more about why I believe that such sentences can be particularly difficult and damaging for women offenders and why they are not necessarily effective.

It is important to recognise that we have devoted a lot of time and effort in seeking to understand how best to work with women who offend and in seeking to reduce the likelihood that they will reoffend. Many in the chamber will remember the national debate that ensued as a result of the number of tragic suicides at Cornton Vale in the mid-1990s, the conclusion of which was that we were failing women offenders. That was a crisis point for the system; it was the point at which we knew that things had to improve.

Cornton Vale responded by initiating major reforms to improve conditions and to put in place systems to reduce the risk of harm to women prisoners. When I visited Cornton Vale, I saw the progress that had been made in improving the physical fabric, the regime and the arrangements for throughcare.

We also have a much better understanding of the range of problems that lead women to offend. That said, our goal must be to design a system that is better suited to the specific needs of women and that can deliver better outcomes for offenders, as well as for victims and the wider community.

The ministerial group on women's offending started the process by setting out a blueprint in its report "A Better Way". The group looked forward to a system that would move away from sending more and more women to prison for relatively minor offences. I share that aim, as I believe most members do. It is now time to move things on again, to be more ambitious and to redefine our approach.

It is interesting to note that Scotland is sitting in the middle of the league table of international comparisons—if we want to have league tables, that is—which shows that we imprison six women for every 100,000 people in our population.