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07 March 2017

Overuse of custody is undermining government reforms for women in trouble with the law

Scotland has one of the highest rates of women’s imprisonment in northern Europe, a new report published today (8 March) on international women’s day by the Prison Reform Trust reveals.

The report found that for every 100,000 women in Scotland, seven are held in prison, considerably higher than most countries in northern Europe, and more than double the rate in France (3.3 per 100,000).

Nearly five years since the publication of the Commission on Women Offenders in Scotland’s final report, chaired by The Rt Hon Dame Elish Angiolini DBE QC, many women in trouble with the law continue to be sentenced to short periods behind bars. Over three-quarters (77%) of women sentenced to custody in 2015–16 were given 6 months or less.

However, speaking in 2015, Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson said “short sentences do nothing to stop reoffending in our communities and only result in offenders going in and out of prison time and time again and reoffending upon release.”

An over reliance on remand, and on short custodial sentences which fail to tackle the underlying causes of offending, continue to draw women into the criminal justice system and keep them there.

Nearly a quarter (23%) of women in prison are held on remand, compared with 15% of the male prison population. For women that go on to serve a custodial sentence, their reoffending rate remains high, with nearly half (45%) being reconvicted within a year of release.

Rather than helping to turn women’s lives around, imprisonment can often compound problems, with over a quarter (28%) of women losing their tenancy when entering prison, and a third of women reporting that they don’t know where they’re going to live on release.

However, recent proposals by the Scottish Government offer some hope for change. Following consultation last year, an extension of the current presumption against short custodial sentences of three months may be introduced. An extension could have a dramatic effect on the number women being sent to prison and would send a clear signal of intent. Plans to develop a new smaller custodial estate for women are also welcome.

Commenting, Scotland and Northern Ireland programme manager of the Prison Reform Trust’s programme to reduce women’s imprisonment, Yvonne Donald said:

“Scotland is leading the way in making positive changes for women in the criminal justice system. The introduction of women’s criminal justice centres, and services where women receive support to tackle their offending behaviour, along with the issues that cause it, are an important step in achieving the Scottish Government’s goal to reduce the number of women in prison.

“However, as our report shows, Scotland still has a long way to go. Whilst reforms to the women’s prison estate are welcome, we must not lose sight that the services women need to turn their lives around often lie outside prison walls.”