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

I would like to move on.

It is not a matter of being soft on crime—whatever that might mean—or of focusing on the needs of offenders at the expense of the needs of victims, because those needs are the same needs. In introducing the legislative programme for 2004-05, Jack McConnell said:

"too many offenders leave only to reappear in the police cells and courts—and back into the prison ... This cycle is wasteful—of time, of money, of lives. It is especially wasteful of each new victim's life."

The most wasteful way in which we can fail to meet the needs of victims is by failing to meet the needs of offenders, because that will lead to the creation of more victims tomorrow.

In the partnership agreement, the Executive commits itself to expanding the role of restorative justice, but ministers seem to want to hang on at the same time to concepts of punitive justice, saying that we cannot yet be sure of the effectiveness of adult restorative justice. However, we know with certainty that what we are doing at the moment to vulnerable people who commit offences is making matters worse. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should ignore the unacceptability of their offences, but neither should we let ourselves be blind to life circumstances or lose our sense of compassion. It is that compassion, not our baser instincts for retribution, that will create hope that things can change.

Much of what I have said so far—and I have spent too much time on it—applies equally to men and to women. However, for women offenders, the need for a new approach is all the more urgent. An extraordinary mismatch exists between the Executive's stated intention to imprison only those who need to be imprisoned for the protection of the public and the reality that only a tiny minority of convictions of women are for violent offences. Far too many women are being sent to prison without good cause. The distinctive nature of the problem is shown by the fact that a high proportion of women prisoners have experienced abuse, homelessness, housing insecurity, addiction, mental health problems, poverty, debt or local authority care, or have been the victims of other crimes.

A far higher proportion of women prisoners than men prisoners have dependent children and that, too, serves to show the distinctive needs of this group of people. It should remind us that in addition to the duty of care to the victims of crime and the duty of care to offenders, to give them the chance of change, we have a duty of care to the next generation, some of whom will be victims and others of whom will be offenders. Shame on us if we allow the sins of the mother to be visited on the sons and the daughters.