Speech in the Scottish Parliament
Female Offenders in the Criminal Justice System
11 February 2010
I am pleased that we have had this debate on the Equal Opportunities Committee's report on female offenders in the criminal justice system, and I am particularly pleased that the topic of female offenders has moved up the political agenda.
Members across the chamber seem to agree that action has to be taken to turn round the dismal picture that Robert Brown and others have painted.
I am, however, disappointed that the cabinet secretary chose not to concentrate on responding to the serious recommendations of the committee's report and broke the consensual note of the debate.
Real disappointment comes from the fact that we have been here before.
As the convener and Elaine Smith said, this time we are coming at the issue from an equalities perspective.
We still struggle with the stated aim of making justice gender neutral when the statistics, as rehearsed by members such as Mike Pringle and James Kelly, speak for themselves.
As Johann Lamont explained, there needs to be a gendered approach—that is the point of the report.
If we want equal outcomes, we have to have different inputs.
Justice and the prison service have been built around and for men and they struggle to cope with gender differences. Being gender blind is not helpful.
The conclusions of "Women Offenders: A Safer Way", a Scottish Executive document from 1998, covered the same problems of drug abuse, fine defaulting, and the additional history of emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and yet the number of female prisoners keeps rising.
The cabinet secretary made much of the increasing numbers when what we want to hear about is the actions that are being taken to decrease them.
We have, however, moved on and improvements have been made.
One of the most significant of those was the opening of the 218 centre, which members have spoken about and praised.
The 218 centre has an excellent reputation for providing services to women in the criminal justice system.
The committee will be keen to see the results of the evaluation currently being undertaken on the centre, and to see such services being replicated across Scotland.
The challenge now is whether more such far-reaching changes will follow all the work that has gone into the committee's report, the recent inspectorate report on Cornton Vale, and the on-going work that many stakeholders do.
The committee is pleased that the Scottish Prison Service's forthcoming strategy on women offenders, and the strategy on domestic abuse, will take account of the recommendations that have been made.
We hope that those strategies are finalised as soon as possible, as the key will be in their implementation.
To echo Hugh O'Donnell, we are keen to see a realistic but fixed timetable, and to monitor the delivery of those strategies.
The Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill presents the Government with a golden opportunity to take action to prevent reoffending.
The bill must be used to ensure that the needs and individual circumstances of female offenders are addressed.
For example, we cannot shy away from re-examining the logic behind the Government's position on ex-offenders. There is agreement about a gendered analysis of violence against women, and that prostitution is part of the spectrum of violence against women.
Money and a huge amount of effort are put into the essential work of promoting routes out of prostitution, but still women who are seeking traditional jobs in caring face the disadvantage of having to disclose convictions as if they were a danger to children and vulnerable adults solely because of a previous conviction for prostitution.
The committee heard a plea from an ex-offender on that issue.
I urge the Government to consider its position on that important point.
If we are to maximise the work possibilities for ex-offenders, as the cabinet secretary has talked about, the issue cannot be ignored.
The Scottish Government's comments on the committee report focused on support for female offenders during community penalties, rather than support post sentence.
However, it is of central importance in reducing reoffending that there is support on release from prison, too.
The committee received evidence during its inquiry from the south-west Scotland community justice authority that, in its first year, a project there had helped to reduce breach rates from more than 30 per cent to about 14 per cent, which led to a corresponding reduction in the number of women going to prison.
Although CJAs have a target of reducing reoffending by 2 per cent by 2011, the Scottish Government does not appear to have an overarching target.
A more defined and rigorous target might help to focus and co-ordinate efforts. Money must be directed carefully.
I welcome the excellent comments that have been made on mental health.
The committee report highlights the need for improvements to the provision of medical records.
Courts should always have access to health information prior to sentencing and, as Malcolm Chisholm and others said, the information should be available to the prison when women are sentenced.
The committee is keen to monitor the impact of transferring responsibility for health care in prisons to the NHS, as we believe that it will have a massively positive impact by joining up health care services with other prison services. For throughcare to be successful, women need consistent and trusting relations to be built with an outside worker before they are released.
The services should be a continuation of what is provided in prison, rather than something distinct.
We heard important points about the rights of the child from the committee convener, Richard Baker, Bill Kidd and others. I hope that the cabinet secretary has listened to them.
The Scottish Government's response to the report did not address directly the committee's recommendations on the need to put children's rights first.
Children's right to visit their parent should not be withdrawn because the offender has failed a drugs test, for instance.
That is punishing the child.
The Government stated in its response that the SPS does not have enough evidence to justify the introduction of speech and language therapy programmes at Cornton Vale.
That has been disputed, but the point highlights a wider issue about the lack of information collection on female offenders and ex-offenders.
There has been an interesting debate on sentencing.
The committee and I look forward to receiving the results of the research on that and the guidelines on sentencing of female offenders.
The Equal Opportunities Committee report has helped move on the debate on female offenders in the criminal justice system.
I welcome the positive tone of the Scottish Government's written response.
The Government seems to be moving in the right direction, but we must ensure that the forthcoming SPS strategy on women offenders is implemented robustly and timeously.
The committee will continue to take an interest in the Scottish Government's progress.
Let us ensure that, in the coming decade, the number of women prisoners stops increasing and that we do not have to repeat the debate again and again in the years to come.
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