Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:49 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green 3:49 pm, 13th April 2005

The problem of women offenders has been known for a long time. Colin Fox told us of the aspirations in the 1970s, and other members have mentioned the many reports that have been produced since then. The one that was published in 1998, just before devolution, "Women Offenders: A Safer Way", sent a clear message to ministers that the number of women offenders could and should be reduced. Community service was being used less frequently for women than for men, although very few female convictions—less than 1 per cent—were for violent offences. The report highlighted the prevalence among women offenders of a history of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, suicide attempts, mental health problems and drug problems, and it also highlighted issues to do with dependent children—and yet the problem persists.

In the first five years of devolution, we saw a 40 per cent increase in the average female prison population, and Cathy Jamieson's motion today notes that that increase continues. The Executive is aware that previous attempts to address the problem have not been successful and the motion acknowledges some of what the Executive now believes is necessary to make progress. I support many of those specific commitments, but I believe not only that specific commitments are necessary but that the underlying philosophy has to be right as well. I want to address the general issues relating to the criminal justice system first, before focusing on the specific issues of women prisoners.

Community sentences and alternatives to custody are, of course, the right approach, but the availability of sentences is not enough unless, as Pauline McNeill noted, there is a possibility of those sentences being put into practice. It is not just a question of integrating services inside and outside prison, to which the motion makes a commitment. There must also be much wider availability of services.

The Executive is also still too committed to the concepts underlying punitive justice. People with mental health problems and substance misuse problems do not belong in prison. They need hospitals, rehabilitation services, care and support, and that need for care and support should be the defining factor in the way in which the state treats them.