Women Offenders

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 3:56 pm on 13th April 2005.

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Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour 3:56 pm, 13th April 2005

My interest in women in the justice system was fostered after reading Helena Kennedy's book "Eve Was Framed: Women and British Justice" in the early 1990s. Although by the end of the book, the jury is still out on whether Eve was framed, Helena Kennedy leaves the reader in no doubt that women do not get a fair deal at the hands of the criminal justice system.

I am pleased to speak in support of the Executive motion. The Executive is undoubtedly committed to reforming the criminal justice system and to reducing the number of women in prison. A number of initiatives have already been introduced as alternatives to custody.

We need to be clear that community sentences are not a soft option. They provide an element of punishment and—perhaps more significantly—of rehabilitation. Most important, community sentences keep families together and so are better for the welfare of children. Kate Maclean and Patrick Harvie referred to that fact.

Separating young children from their mother causes trauma that can often lead to mental illness or profound emotional problems. Recent research shows that 30 per cent of prisoners' children suffer significant mental health problems; the comparable figure for the general population is 10 per cent. The Prison Reform Trust estimates that only 5 per cent of female prisoners' children remain in their own home after their mother is imprisoned.

When we note that many of the young women offenders who enter the system come from chaotic family backgrounds and that a high proportion of them were looked after by local authorities, we see that imprisoning mothers can become a self-perpetuating cycle. Society has nothing to gain from enforcing increased instability in society and from perpetuating looked-after situations in the lives of more and more children.

Research has shown that even short stays in prison can make it more difficult for women to settle back into their community. They result in problems with housing, with taking back care of their children and with reconnecting to services outwith prison. We should be concerned about the number of women who are held on remand for short periods of time in Scotland's prisons. Between 1994 and 2003, the number of female receptions on remand almost doubled.

The report "Punishment First—Verdict Later?", which was published by Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons for Scotland in 2000, reminded us that individuals on pre-trial remand are innocent in the eyes of the law and that a large proportion of those in post-trial situations are unlikely to receive a custodial sentence. That begs the question why we feel it is necessary to imprison women when they pose little or no threat to their communities.

Since 2003, the Executive has taken action on the issue and has developed an innovative initiative in the 218 time-out project, which is the first of its kind in the United Kingdom. The initiative was mentioned by the minister and also by Pauline McNeill. The 218 project offers programmes of care, support and development to women offenders that are designed to stop their offending by tackling substance misuse and the trauma and poverty that drive that misuse.

The 218 project combines a detox facility with residential and day programmes and provides support and outreach to heath, social work and housing services. Given that the project is expected to restore and promote greater confidence in community disposals, I was concerned to hear the point that Pauline McNeill raised and would be interested to hear the minister's comments on it. I would also be interested to know from the minister whether the project has been a success so far and, if so, whether it will be rolled out.

In any discussion about female offenders, it is essential to consider the overarching influence of poverty on patterns of female offending—an issue on which we have amendments today. Women are disproportionately represented in the figures for so-called crimes of indecency, namely prostitution, and they comprise a higher than average proportion of those who are convicted for shoplifting, other theft and non-payment of TV licences—the kinds of things that other members have mentioned today. All those offences are either directly or indirectly linked to financial hardship and poverty. Frankly, it is ridiculous that financial penalties, followed by prison when women fail to pay, are imposed on women whose behaviour is in effect the result of poverty and social exclusion in the first place. It makes no sense.

Dr McLellan of HMIP summed up the situation in his report on Cornton Vale in 2004, when he said:

"Eighty per cent of prisoners ... have a history of mental illness ... 90% of admissions have addiction problems" and

"Over 60% have a history of being abused".

The question must be asked: what will prison do for them? The minister touched upon the fact that we must examine what prison can offer in terms of rehabilitation.

I want to mention briefly the storybook mums initiative, which is due to be introduced in Cornton Vale next week. It is a positive initiative that was outlined in the Sunday Herald a couple of weeks ago. The project will allow mothers to record CDs of stories in their own voices for their children, which is important when we consider that research shows that prisoners are less likely to reoffend if they are able to maintain contact with their families while in custody. It is also important for the children. Another worthwhile project is being developed by Routes Out, which I do not have time to go into, but it involves intervention within prison.

It makes no sense to send women to prison as a punishment, as others have said. I return to Helena Kennedy's book. She proposed in 1992 that real alternatives to prison should be created, such as appropriate community service, hostels and rehabilitation centres. She made the sensible suggestion—which might address the point that Kate Maclean made so passionately—that before any mother is sent to prison, the court should obtain the details of the likely impact on their child, and reasons should be given for not imposing an alternative to incarceration. She stated:

"If the modern spirit of sentencing policy behind the new Criminal Justice Act 1991 is truly that prisons are places for dealing with serious crime, particularly violence, then it should be translated into reality by the judges, and our female prisons particularly could virtually be emptied."

Sadly, more than a decade later, the number of women in prison is actually going up, which is uneconomical, unnecessary and unacceptable.