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

I am not going to explain the point; I want to focus on what we need to do at the moment in Scotland. I will say more about some of the ways in which we can prevent women who do not need to be imprisoned from ending up in prison. I hope that the member will recognise that the figures that I have just quoted show that we can do better and that we must do better.

I make it clear that I accept that some women are involved in serious offences. When those serious offences take place, women should face the consequences of their actions, as their male counterparts have to do. As a result of those offences, there will always be circumstances in which women will be imprisoned.

I recognise that the profile of most women's offending is different: it is more about shoplifting and crimes of dishonesty than about crimes of violence. I also recognise that it is more about problems in accessing appropriate services in the community. We need to understand and lessen the damage to families and the lasting impact on children. Those are some of the issues that we need to look at, because communities and families pay a price for the way in which we deal with women offenders. I believe that that price is too high at the moment.

I want to say a few words about community options. As Carolyn Leckie said, we know that many women offenders suffer from serious problems that are caused by addiction, mental illness, the struggle to cope with debt and—too often—a history of physical or sexual abuse. It is therefore right that our starting point must be to deal with those problems before women reach the criminal justice process.

I recognise that the Conservative amendment addresses that point. I am sure that Conservative members will say more on the subject and I look forward to hearing their comments. I believe that every member can sign up to the goal of dealing with the problems that women face before they reach the criminal justice process.

When women come into the criminal justice system, the focus has to be on solving problems and not on creating new ones. It cannot be right that we have to send women to prison in order that they can access services that address society's ills. We want a system where support services are available earlier rather than later and within the local community rather than within a prison setting. Moreover, it cannot be right that we do more damage to families, and to children in particular, by imprisoning so many women, especially when we know how important family support is in tackling reoffending.

I strongly believe that any strategy for the future must acknowledge that many women offenders have a drug problem and that more often than not drug problems are linked to their offending behaviour. It is estimated that, on average, 90 per cent of women who are admitted to Cornton Vale have addiction problems. That is a serious issue, which is why I want more to be done to get women with drugs problems into treatment services. We need to have arrest referral schemes at the earliest stage in the criminal justice process and we need drug treatment and testing orders for those with long histories of offending linked to addiction.

We are already beginning to see signs of success with DTTOs, which are high-tariff disposals. Of the DTTOs imposed in 2004, 17 per cent were for women. The principle is to use punishment and rehabilitation, as I have emphasised in a number of debates in the chamber and in much of the work that we are doing. Evaluation is finding that that approach works. More than half the offenders who received a DTTO had no further convictions within two years.

We also know that drug dependency is not just a problem for the criminal justice system. It also affects our communities and is a public health issue. That is why I am determined that our drug action teams, criminal justice services, courts and enforcement agencies should work more closely together, because one service's repeat offender is another's repeat patient and the community's repeat problem. We have to do something about that. We need better arrangements for joint working so that services better meet the needs of people and communities. Within those better arrangements, I expect services to address the specific needs of women offenders by intervening early, consistently and appropriately to help them to challenge their addiction and to reduce their offending behaviour.

We know that Scotland has a particular problem with persistent minor offending. We see women appearing time and again within the criminal justice system as petty persistent offenders—I see Bill Aitken nodding his head in agreement. I am sure that, in some instances, those who sit on the bench are hard pressed to know how to respond in a way that not only does justice to victims but ensures that rehabilitation is undertaken appropriately.

I want to ensure that we provide more effective options for our courts at the lower end of the offending scale. If we can divert people from the process altogether, so much the better. As for the needs of victims and the efficiency of the process, we must get better at resolving problems at an earlier stage. We also need to look at bail information and supervision schemes. Electronic monitoring as a condition of bail could help to reduce the large number of women who are currently held on remand and who are not a danger to the public. There has been a consensus over the years that too many women end up in prison for fine defaulting. Supervised attendance orders are being put in place as an alternative to prison for that group and are beginning to prove effective, according to our monitoring of the pilot schemes.

I will say a few words about the 218 time-out centre. We need to be more imaginative and to look for new solutions to old problems, which is why I am pleased that Scotland is pioneering a very different approach to women offenders. The project arose directly from the report of the ministerial group on women's offending, which called for such a centre. The centre—whose formal opening I was pleased to be involved with in 2003—provides day and residential services for women in the criminal justice system and offers a direct alternative to custody. That point is worth stressing. Some of the services that are offered at the centre are, of course, available to women who move through the system, but the centre is intended to provide a direct alternative to custody.

The centre is an innovative project and its effectiveness in reducing reoffending is being examined. It has a year's experience behind it now and we already know that it is increasing its profile in the courts, from which it is beginning to get more direct referrals. In addition, its reputation is spreading further. Last month, the Home Office cited the 218 time-out centre as a groundbreaking initiative and an example of excellence. United Kingdom ministers will be looking northwards to learn lessons from it.

That is all very positive, but, unfortunately, not everything has been positive. I am particularly disappointed that Scotland's female prison population continues to rise year on year. Of course it is true that it will take time for some reforms that we have set in place to yield results, but we must do more and push forward with further reforms. Simply increasing the range of community disposals will not in itself reduce the number of women in prison. We must also ensure that community sentences can deliver results, are credible and can secure the confidence of sentencers. Later this year, an online version of our information pack will be available to every sheriff in the country to keep them up to date on the availability of community sentences.

On the quality of the programmes that follow sentences, we have set up the community justice accreditation panel, which is important for driving up standards and promoting excellence in community programmes. The panel will soon combine with the Scottish Prison Service panel to give a unified approach in order to try to manage programmes and to ensure that offenders are less likely to reoffend.