Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:07 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Colin Fox Colin Fox SSP 3:07 pm, 13th April 2005

Give me a second.

This is my answer to Stewart Stevenson's earlier question; the overwhelming majority of the 300 women who are incarcerated in Cornton Vale, Greenock and elsewhere do not pose any threat to the public. We reiterate our desire that the majority of those women should serve their sentences in the community, and use drug treatment and rehabilitation centres such as 218. I hope that when the report about the examination of 218 is put in front of us, the minister will announce that more day and residential services will be available to the courts as an alternative disposal to prisons. Greater support for community based disposals and encouragement for the courts to use them surely depends upon the courts seeing that those resources are properly provided, resourced and backed up by criminal justice social work, and health, housing and other departments.

The alternative penalties such as warnings, diversions from prosecution in the first place, and addressing the roots of offending behaviour—such as poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse and alcohol misuse—and deferred sentences are all steps in the right direction. I support the idea of recovering fines without the remedy of sending women to prison. We have to acknowledge the fact that, when only 2 per cent of women offenders are sentenced to community service orders, and the remaining 98 per cent are not, there is an institutional problem. Supervised attendance orders are the way forward.

I welcome the minister's plan for us to consider more ambitious disposals. There is a political desire to reduce significantly the number of people jailed. However, I would like the Executive to go further. It should consider the British crime survey's recommendations on the need to reduce public expectation of what custody can achieve; on the need to reduce prison numbers; on the need, perhaps, to cash limit sentencing budgets; and on the need to consider the issue of the vast numbers of women that we remand in custody—some 40 per cent of the total—while they await trial.

The Justice 1 Committee's comparative report on the situation in Finland, western Australia and Sweden was highly instructive. In Sweden, the use of intensive supervision—backed up by electronic monitoring—has resulted in substantial reductions in prison numbers.

We should aim for the 1970s goal of having no women in jail; we should increase the facilities to allow people to be treated in communities; we should treat people with mental health problems and people who have survived abuse in the appropriate location—which is not prison; we should consider decriminalising certain offences; and we should support more alternatives to imprisonment.

I move amendment S2M-2689.3, to leave out from "rehabilitation" to end and insert:

"alternatives to custody for women and greater access to drugs rehabilitation resources are vital; believes that prison is no place to treat women with severe mental health, drugs or alcohol problems; believes that the vast majority of women prisoners pose no threat to the community and should best serve their sentences in the community; believes that only by tackling the root causes of their offending: poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, history of abuse and health problems, will the current trends of increased incarceration be reversed; further believes that it is unacceptable that women end up in jail for trivial offences like fine defaulting, shoplifting and TV licence evasion, and believes that it is time to end custody as a penalty for these and other such offences."