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Thinking about women's penal policy

Howard League Scotland in the News

John Scott spoke on Good Morning Scotland about women's penal policy and the need to make custody a measure of last resort

Listen from 10 minutes 40 secs: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03zr3gp/Good_Morning_Scotland_14_0...

Dr Margaret Malloch - Women's Penal Policy

Women offenders: ‘From where I stand…’

This blog is part of a series considering developments two years on from the publication of the report by the Commission on Women Offenders. Dr Margaret Malloch, Senior Research Fellow, Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, University of Stirling, offers her perspective:

I am very appreciative of the effort that has gone into the Commission on Women Offenders, the resulting report and subsequent developments. When the Commission was set up, I have to say that I was somewhat sceptical, given the well informed and thorough enquiries that had already been carried out to examine the circumstances of women in the criminal justice system in Scotland. The evidence was already in place to inform us all about the distressing circumstances of the majority of women who come into contact with the criminal justice system. However, when I heard the Commission had called for the closure of HMP and YOI Cornton Vale, I confess that I was delighted. Perhaps this marked the way forward to a real reduction in the number of women in prison in Scotland, a re-routing down an abolitionist path. However, with plans for the new prison at Inverclyde well underway, I’m no longer convinced that this is the case.

The Commission’s remit was to consider how to reduce the female prison population largely through the reduction of reoffending by women; but unless poverty and social deprivation are addressed and the concomitant criminalisation of the poor and socially vulnerable, we continue to punish those who are often already marginalised and excluded from wider society. Sentencing practice remains unchanged, despite the fact that the increasing number of women in prison in Scotland appears to be attributable to harsher sentencing practices rather than the result of more frequent or more serious offending by women. We have some excellent community provisions in place in Scotland, but interventions continue to be short-term funded leaving limited opportunities to identify longer-term impact/outcomes and importantly, to develop consistent and supportive interventions.

The Commission courageously called for the closure of Cornton Vale and its replacement with a smaller institution more suited to the needs of women. However without a ‘twin-track’ approach that consists of the development and enhancement of community disposals alongside a reduction in the number of available prison places, prison numbers are unlikely to reduce significantly. New prison places aimed at replacing the current estate may actually expand it; something that we know works against the use of alternative disposals and actually increases the cycle of imprisonment. From where I stand, there is much that still needs to be done and in my view, it involves action that goes well beyond the criminal justice system.

http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/people/dr-margaret-malloch/

Tom Halpin, Sacro - Women's Penal Policy

Women offenders: ‘From where I stand…’

This blog is part of a series considering developments two years on from the publication of the report by the Commission on Women Offenders. Tom Halpin, Chief Executive, SACRO and Chair of the Shine partnership, offers his perspective:

The Commission on Women Offenders Report was not a ‘wake up’ call, it was a long needed ‘holding to account’ for us all.

Today, the report card for work done to meet the Commission’s recommendations reads ‘making good progress, but still needs to focus on outcomes’.

This last year has definitely been about delivering the services that women need. Public Social Partnerships are an emerging model for designing and delivering these services. Shine Women’s Mentoring Service is now providing personal mentors to support women on a one-to-one basis with the issues many face in the community. After a period in custody, it is a difficult time for anyone and often it is not easy to access services.

For women, these issues are emotionally significant; frequently further damaging already low self-esteem. The Shine mentor will talk these things through with a woman in prison and then remain with her on release to give support both practically and emotionally for a minimum of six months. This support is designed to rebuild self-esteem and make the change needed on a personal journey to a life without offending. This is the outcome we all must support through the services we provide. It is too early to write the final report card, but progress is good.

Mentoring support is now firmly established across all Scotland’s communities and available for women leaving prison. We are also making progress supporting women on remand. This is an anomaly where the disproportionately high numbers compared to men on remand needs to be scrutinised further.

Along with other established mentoring initiatives, Shine is working with the women’s justice centres and linked services to ensure the woman’s journey is supported and joined up.

Individual testimonies from women who engage with Shine are overwhelmingly positive and provide confidence that Angiolini’s recommendation for mentoring support is the right response. Testimonies like that of Miss L, who stated that having a mentor to talk to has helped her think about the consequences of her actions and given her confidence in her ability to adhere to her plans to stop offending. She was delighted to tell her mentor that when a drug dealer had visited her home and offered her drugs, Miss L refused the offer and told him to leave and never come back.

Importantly, this is also about those dedicated workers and volunteers who support women on their journey to desistance from offending. A crucial element of the response to the Commission has been how the workforce is developing. Collaboration between public, private and third sector staff and volunteers is frankly inspirational. Building a common understanding of what mentoring support is, establishing practice standards to safeguard all and sharing learning for the benefit of women.

Scotland has responded to the Commission and is holding itself to account. But the final report grade will depend on the outcomes we achieve. There are still too many women in prison, particularly on remand.

Too many women still find themselves in the margins having difficulty accessing services like housing and health, particularly in relation to mental health.

So long as we continue to stay alert, our next report should read ‘very good and outcomes are being achieved’.

http://www.sacro.org.uk/

http://www.shinementoring.org/

What's right for women offenders?

This time two years ago there was great optimism upon the publication of The Commission on Women's Offending. The Report highlighted that those women who end up in prison are amongst the most vulnerable members of our society. Their pasts are often marred with abuse and trauma, their presents are characterised by addiction, poverty and isolation. Further, patterns of female criminality are generally defined by low level offences and by in large they present little risk to the public. The demanding task faced by Government in wake of the report was how to transform women's penal policy to reflect these issues, how to make it effective and fair.

Two years on from the publication of the Report it is clear that some progress has been made in improving the lot of women offenders. However, there is widespread concern about the numbers of women still passing through our criminal justice system. Whilst there has been a drop in numbers, the number of women in prison continues to hover around the 400 mark. And again, whilst the proposed closure of Cornton Vale was universally welcomed, there is dismay at the plans to build a 350-bed prison in Inverclyde. It is clear that this is far from being the “smaller, specialist prison” recommended by the report.

This week, to mark this anniversary, Howard League Scotland have invited those who work with female offenders and their families to reflect on the current state of affairs. In addition to those practitioners, three women whom are resident in the 218 Project kindly gave us their time, sharing with us their stories and their positive experiences while in the 218, displaying that change can be possible when it operates on the principles of welfare and treatment, rather than incarceration. While we welcome progress, we must remain vigilant in highlighting the on-going difficulties experienced by those women in the Scottish criminal justice system.

Read coverage of these issues in today's Sunday Herald:
Women's prison population rises by 120%: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/crime-courts/womens-prison-population...
Locking up women not the answer: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/locking-women-up-not-answer...

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