The Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has said better community alternatives to women’s imprisonment are a priority in the Scottish Government’s plans to reform women’s justice.

Speaking ahead of a reception in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon (Wednesday) to mark the initiative by the Soroptimists and the Prison Reform Trust to reduce women’s imprisonment across the UK and to publicise their action pack, he said:

“Reducing reoffending, improving the circumstances of women in prison and seeking better community-based alternatives to imprisonment for women continue to be priorities for the Scottish Government  – indeed, that’s why we established the Commission on Women Offenders.”

The Holyrood reception, hosted by Rhoda Grant MSP, will hear from the Justice Secretary about progress made in implementing the recommendations of the Scottish Commission on Women Offenders.

The Justice Secretary added:

“Work is now well underway on a number of the Commission’s key recommendations to improve outcomes for women in prison and in their dealings with justice services in the community.

“This includes planning for new women-specific prison facilities at HMP Inverclyde and HMP Edinburgh, work to improve the existing facilities at Cornton Vale, work to establish Women’s Justice Centres and the provision of funding to support a new national mentoring service for women offenders offering one-to-one support to better address the wider issues that can often drive them to offend.

"I want to congratulate the Prison Reform Trust for its key work to reduce the number of women in prison and its efforts to improve community-based alternatives, and look forward to working with the Trust and Soroptimists in Scotland on building a justice system that better responds to the needs of women offenders to help them live a life free from crime."

The number of women in prison in Scotland increased by 66% in the decade from 2002 to 2012. In 2011-12, there were 1,361 women who received a custodial sentence, 78% of whom were serving sentences of 6 months or less.

The Commission on Women Offenders, led by Dame Elish Angiolini, was established following a harrowing Prison Inspectorate report on Cornton Vale women’s prison. Its report, published in April 2012, found that Corton Vale was not “fit for purpose” and recommended a radical overhaul of the women’s justice system in Scotland.

The Scottish Government has accepted most of the Commission’s recommendations. It has committed to reducing the number of women in Scotland who end up in prison by providing early diversion opportunities, improving community sentencing options and increasing support to enable women to address the problems that have got them into trouble in the first place.

During 2011-12, the average daily women’s prison population in Scotland increased by 8%, double that for men (4%). Women in Scotland are also more likely to be in prison on remand or for crimes of dishonesty, such as shoplifting. Many women in prison have young children. Many have themselves been the victims of serious crime, including domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape. Mental health problems, drug and alcohol addiction and self-harm are also very common.

The Scottish Government has recently been praised by a United Nations body for taking steps in the right direction to improve criminal justice outcomes for women.

The United Nation’s Committee Against Torture, which scrutinises prison conditions in UN member states, recommended in its latest report on the UK that the UK Government “pay due attention to the recommendations of the Commission on Women Offenders (Scotland) and those contained in the ‘Corston Report’ (England and Wales), in particular ensuring effective diversion from the criminal justice system for petty non-violent offenders, increasing the use of community sentences, and implementing changes to the prison regime to further reduce deaths and incidents of self-harm.”

In 2012, the Soroptimist UK Programme Action Committee (UKPAC) resolved to mount a campaign to reduce women’s imprisonment across the UK, working in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust. This ties in with their flagship project Violence Against Women - Stop it Now, on which a detailed analysis of the work done, club by club, is presented annually to Ministers in Westminster.

Soroptimist International is an organisation that works to improve the lives of women and girls worldwide. It has a membership of approximately 90,000 women in over 3,000 clubs in 127 countries and it is the only women’s service organisation with general consultative status at the United Nations.

This innovative partnership is timely. The UK Government has recently published a strategy on women’s justice and announced the establishment of an Advisory Board, chaired by the Justice Minister Helen Grant MP, to help shape future policy and drive through reform. There are proposals in Northern Ireland and Wales for improved provision for female offenders.

Approximately 13,500 women are sent to prison each year in the UK, and the number of women in prison has increased significantly over the past decade. This is despite a widespread consensus, based on evidence, that community solutions that address the causes of women’s offending are more effective than prison in reducing crime and minimising the cost to society. Because women are such a small minority of the prison population they are easily overlooked and are generally given short shrift in criminal justice policy, planning, prison systems and service delivery.

Today’s event in Edinburgh will bring together Scottish Parliamentarians, policymakers, criminal justice practitioners and representatives from Soroptimist clubs across Scotland to raise awareness of women’s justice reform and support members to take action locally.

The action pack contains facts and figures about women’s justice and other useful resources, and suggests steps Soroptimists can take to help end the unnecessary imprisonment of women who are not a threat to the public, and enable them instead to tackle the causes of their offending. Soroptimists in Scotland will gather information about what is happening locally in police stations, courts, criminal justice social work services and Community Justice Centres for women to fill critical gaps in the UK-wide picture of the state of women’s justice, serving to increase our understanding of the drivers to custody for women as well as highlighting good practice.

The evidence received from clubs will be published in a report on the state of women’s justice across the UK in 2014, which will be presented to Ministers, MSPs, and policy makers.  

Speakers at the Edinburgh reception include:

Kenny MacAskill MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Justice; Sarah Roberts from Families Outside; Wendy Spencer, Senior Operations Manager for the 218 Service; Jan Hemlin, UKPAC chair; Jenny Earle, programme director and Juliet Lyon CBE, director, Prison Reform Trust.

Commenting on the Soroptimists’ campaign to end the unnecessary imprisonment of women, Jan Hemlin, Chair of the Soroptimist UK Programme Action Committee, said:

“The Soroptimists are uniquely placed to gather much-needed information and add a strong voice from communities across the UK to press for, and achieve long-awaited change. We have learned of the exponential increase in women’s prison numbers in recent years, with about 13,500 women now sent to prison each year across the UK. Most are imprisoned for non-violent offences. Our members are committed to ensuring more constructive responses across the country to women who come into contact with the criminal justice system, many of whom are involved in non-violent, petty offending and have been victims themselves. We are very encouraged by developments in Scotland and look forward to mapping progress.”

Patricia Black, President, Soroptimist International of Great Britain and Ireland, said:

“I know that Soroptimist members across the UK have been horrified by the statistics presented on the imprisonment of women. If there is a way forward which can help women to change their lives for the better, if there is an alternative for some to being imprisoned, then surely we can provide a voice on this issue.”

Juliet Lyon, Director, Prison Reform Trust, said:

“The Soroptimists have an invaluable role to play, and the capacity to succeed, both in gathering information across the UK and achieving much needed reform. Most of the solutions to women’s offending lie outside prison walls in treatment for addictions, mental health and social care, safe housing, debt management and employment and skills. For the vast majority, constructive community sentences will work better and avoid the pain of separating small children from their mothers. The Scottish government is making real headway in developing constructive alternatives to prison for women. The closure of Cornton Vale presents an important opportunity to invest in, and expand, community solutions to crime rather than ploughing it all back into new prison places for women.”