Sarah Roberts, Families Outside - 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. Sarah Roberts, Child and Family Support Manager at Families Outside, offers her perspective:

When Helen (not her real name) was remanded into custody, a Criminal Justice Social Work (CJSW) report was written - standard procedure for a first-time offender. However, whilst the report mentioned that Helen was the sole carer of three young children, no questions were asked about care arrangements or the impact that her inevitable prison sentence would have on them or about the wider family members who became their guardians. Rather, the report merely stated that “it is assumed that the remaining family [would] take on the care of the children.” Helen received a life sentence, and three children faced life without a mother with no assessment of their needs and no support package in place.

Despite the thirty-seven recommendations in the Angiolini report, the Commission stated that Child Impact Assessments were not necessary as a distinct recommendation because that is included in the role of the CJSW report. However, CJSW reports are not required in the majority of cases, nor do they provide detailed information regarding family circumstances or the impact on children, as is evident in Helen’s case.

An assessment highlighting the needs of Helen’s children, and the family members left caring for them, would have made an enormous difference to everyone and to their subsequent access to support. I know this because I was the children’s teacher. I knew about the crime from newspaper reports, but not once did any of those papers comment on the impact of what had happened on Helen’s children. They didn’t mention the trauma the children had experienced; the shame they felt; the bullying they received; the mental health problems that two of them subsequently developed. They didn’t tell of the pressure and strain on the family members now caring for three extra children. Because no one asked the family how this might impact them, because there was no conversation about support available, the family struggled on, isolated. And because as a school we didn’t understand the impact of imprisonment on children, we struggled on, too – no one really talking about the main issue; no support package that met the actual needs of the children.

What’s important here is that a Child Impact Assessment would not have made a difference to the sentence; Helen would have received a lengthy custodial sentence anyway. Child Impact Assessments are not about reducing or avoiding sentences; rather, they are about focusing on the circumstances of those who will be affected by the sentence - the innocent who are punished alongside their family member. They are about asking, ‘How can we minimise negative impact here?’

I was so concerned about the lack of a Child Impact Assessment for Helen’s children that I left my teaching job and undertook research in the US and Australia, looking at the role of schools in supporting families affected by imprisonment. My research findings are a whole other blog (available on the Families Outside website), but I can summarise all the conversations with imprisoned parents, their children and carers in a few words. When I asked them all what it is they want, they said this: ‘I want someone to ask how I am doing; I want to be listened to; I want to be involved in decisions that are made about me; I want to be connected and included.’ That sounds to me exactly like the purpose of a Child Impact Assessment. We need to stop doing things to people and start doing things with people. We need to take the wider view and focus not solely on the sentence in relation to the offence but on those affected by the sentence.

Perhaps if there had been a Child and Family Impact Assessment for Helen’s children, there could have been support put in place for the family members who were left caring for them; perhaps they would have felt more confident in sharing information with the school; perhaps teachers at my school would have had a greater understanding of how to reach out to families affected by imprisonment; perhaps we could have prevented two children developing mental health issues. With some exceptions, the fact is that CJSW reports do not yet go far enough when it comes to our most vulnerable children and families. Women in the criminal justice system are particularly vulnerable, and we need to keep asking the questions that the Angiolini report raised within its recommendations. What the impact of imprisonment is on the remaining children and families, and how best to support them through this, seems like a good place to start.


Tam Bailie, Commissioner for Children and Young People

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. Tam Baillie, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, offers his perspective:

I am always amazed when we have a body of opinion and knowledge about an aspect of policy that just isn’t borne out in the practice. Take young offenders. There is widespread agreement that to lock up increasing numbers of young offenders is counterproductive, as it costs our society more in the long run – yet, for years we continued to do it. When these young offenders who are locked up are 16 and 17 years old, it breaches our international obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

So, when you realise that currently, we have reducing numbers of 16/17 year olds in custody, we should be inspired that maybe something of note is happening. This is just where we are at in Scotland with regard to our treatment of young offenders – and it feels like something special is happening with regard to young female offenders aged 16/17 years. In recent years there has been a diminishing handful of 16/17 year old females in prison in Scotland. At the end of 2013, it was down to one. Of course, this is one too many and in my view we should have the ambition to make it zero - and I would encourage the architects of our prison re-provisioning to incorporate this ambition in the specification for the new prisons.

Much of this is a result of the adoption of the ‘whole systems approach’ which has focused attention on systems management as much as offender management. I am greatly encouraged by the drop in custody for young women and I think we have a platform for ensuring that we do not use custody for any 16/17 year old females. This is easily within our capability and it could provide the inspiration for a similar ambition for males aged 16/17 years, for whom we have the same obligations under the UNCRC.

There are other policy drivers which can make this a reality. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill will extend the right to remain in care up to the age of 21. Given the high proportion of care leavers in custody, and the traumatised profile of many of our young women offenders, we should be able to harmonise polices to make further improvements in reducing our custody figures for young female offenders.

We have a big prize to play for and it is within our grasp to make it happen – let’s go for it.

CJA Chief Officers - 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. Justina Murray, Chief Officer of South West Community Justice Authority, and Tom Jackson, Chief Officer of Glasgow Community Justice Authority, offer their perspective:

Can it be two years since we all crowded into the Collins Suite at the University of Strathclyde to hear Dame Elish Angiolini and colleagues launch their report into women offenders?

As Community Justice Authorities (CJAs) we played an active role, through formal submissions and involvement in focus groups to ‘sense check’ proposals. Of the 37 recommendations, most reflected our own views (community justice re-design aside – that’s for another day) – we believe that women in the justice system have complex needs and are often also victims of crime and coercion; that more holistic and consistent support is needed; and that a Whole Systems Approach is required.

There is scope for cautious optimism when we reflect on the past two years. The prison population has fallen for men and women in Scotland, with the number of women in custody falling at a far faster rate (comparing 28 March 2012 and 5 March 2014, the female prison population fell by 14.1% compared to a reduction for males of 6.4%). We now have the Shine women’s mentoring service running across Scotland, delivering high quality, person-centred support, ending the postcode lottery of through care for women leaving prison or at risk of reoffending ( We have Women’s Justice Centres opening or expanding, alongside other new preventative approaches supported through initial Scottish Government investment. HMPYOI Cornton Vale has been refurbished and plans are underway for a ground-breaking new women’s prison, HMP Inverclyde.

CJAs have been actively involved in supporting (sometimes living and breathing) all of these developments, and we warmly welcome new investment and opportunities for joint working, and the political priority now attached to women in the justice system.

But... over 400 women remained in custody on any day in March this year. Very few of them would need to be in prison for public protection. Women continue to spiral through the justice system too fast, too often, and in too big a number. We worry about the short-term nature of funding for some new initiatives and the fact that planning for women within the prison estate is designed for growth, not a fall in numbers.

We need to ask, was the Commission ambitious enough? Have recommendations been watered down when faced with the tricky business of implementation?

Two years on, does the justice system feel any different for women still trapped within? Are we any better at getting women out and keeping them out of the system? Are we seeing Christie’s ‘decisive shift to prevention’ or is too much money still tangled in ‘failure demand’? Are we now seeing ‘the woman’ not ‘the offender’? Two years on, we are heading in the right direction, but that step-change we need still feels just beyond our reach. and

Thinking about women's penal policy

Thinking about women's penal policy