Breaking the cycle

by Apr 23, 2012 No Comments

It is hoped commission on female offending can inspire prison reform

The reputation of Scotland’s criminal justice system has long been besmirched by prisons filled beyond capacity and embarrassing reoffending rates. Incarcerating more than double the number of people than our European counterparts, despite having comparative crime rates, Scotland’s revolving door culture is a regular source of political and social despair. The nation’s prison population reached a new record high last month of 8,316.

The issue was brought back into focus last week when a commission set up by the Scottish Government and led by former Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini gave a damning verdict on how female offenders are treated by the criminal justice system.

The report recommended demolishing women’s prison Cornton Vale and replacing it with a smaller jail for long-term and high-risk prisoners. Other regional units would hold shorter-term and remand prisoners. Cornton Vale currently holds 309 women, with a further 132 being held in units at Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness and Greenock prisons.

Members of the commission discovered during their investigation that there was an 80 per cent reoffending rate for female prisoners sentenced to six months or less – and 75 per cent of women receive such short terms. Only 30 per cent of those sent to Cornton Vale on remand actually receive a custodial sentence, and 25 per cent of the overall population of the jail are on remand, compared to 18 per cent among male prisoners. Research has suggested that almost all women sent to prison arrive there with mental health problems or alcohol or drug addictions.

The commission made 37 recommendations, including that new powers be given to police and judges when they are dealing with women offenders. Angiolini says the “significant cost to society” of locking up women suffering from addiction or mental health problems could no longer be ignored.

“In my 28 years as a prosecutor, I saw at first hand the tragic impact of women offending and reoffending on their victims, the local community, their families and themselves,” she said.

But many of the issues raised in the report also feature across Scotland’s overall prison population. And this report is not the first time a commission has been called to look at the situation. Former First Minister Henry McLeish led a group that investigated inmate numbers in 2008 and said it had to be tackled through finding alternatives to jail. The McLeish commission predicted the population could reach 8,700 by 2016, but said it should be reduced to 5,000.

In response to the McLeish report, the SNP Government in 2010, while a minority administration, introduced legislation that would see a presumption against sentences of three months or less, and replace them with community payback orders. The payback orders were brought in after community sentences became deeply unpopular with many local authorities unable to enforce them in a timely fashion, or at all in some instances.

But the orders have come in for some criticism. Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson told her party conference last month that “nearly a third of the SNP’s flagship Community Payback Orders are imposed with no work requirement whatsoever”.

She added: “If you’re given a non-custodial sentence, there’s every chance you’ll never have to do a day’s work to pay back society. And if you breach the terms of your community service, don’t worry. The SNP have abolished short-term prison sentences.”

But former First Minister McLeish disagrees, insisting that alternatives to short-term prison sentences will be shown to work better as they are developed as alternatives to jail. “I don’t think there is anything surprising in the fact the prison population is as high as it is. Any change that is introduced will take some time to have an impact. Legislation like the presumption against sentences of three months or less, was only recently put on the statute books. Also, the payback orders will have to be developed over time and in that sense it is not surprising the figures are still going up.

“What I think is important is you now have, in terms of my report and in terms of Elish Angiolini’s report, two of the most radical and relevant reform packages that the UK has ever seen.

“We also have a radical government that has already taken steps to shift the balance away from prison and into community… the three month presumption is only a start and was a compromise because of the minority status of the government. It seems to me we should be  edging that up to six months because this is where you get the huge dividend. Put in prison those that need to be and have an alternative for those who don’t need to be there.”

He adds: “We are a nation totally out of line, out of step, with most countries in Europe, with the exception of some of the Eastern European countries and Russia. We have per 100,000 of population a higher figure of incarceration than England, and England by any standard is poor.

“That means there is a huge challenge because we don’t look civilised, we don’t look enlightened, we look tired and dated and if we continue to incarcerate at this rate it will only get worse. The actual number of people in prison bears no relationship to crime. First of all, when crime goes up prison figures go up, when crime goes down the prison figures go up and when crime remains the same the prison figures go up – it makes no sense. I hope the government will continue to move on the reforms; they have done a good job so far but more needs to be done.”

One issue highlighted in the Angiolini report is the high number of prisoners on remand, which is similar to the situation facing adult male prisoners. Scotland’s Chief Prisons Inspector Brigadier Hugh Monro told this magazine this is an issue that needs to be addressed urgently.

“One of the reasons I think there has been a rise in the prison population is the number of people on remand. There are a lot more remand prisoners at the moment – I think it’s around 400 or so – that I think is significant.  When I go round prisons, it is the remand prisoners that don’t seem to get such good access to education or vocational training. So what are they doing in prison? Most of them are locked up, they will get a little bit of exercise and so on but they don’t get the access to dealing with any underlying behaviour.

“Even if they are only in for three months or so it is still possible in that time that you could be dealing with an alcohol problem or a drug problem and I don’t see that happening as much as I would like to see it.”

While prison reform motivated by compassion may not always be welcomed by some members of the political class or indeed wider society, the benefits seem far-reaching. According to the Scottish Prison Service it costs £32,000 a year to imprison one offender and the reoffending rate is around 70 per cent.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has said: “Why did we take that position on short sentences? It was because all the evidence shows a tough community order will more likely break the cycle of reoffending than a short prison sentence. As I recall, the statistics are: three quarters of people on short prison sentences will reoffend within two years.

“Two thirds given a tough community sentence will not. Therefore we have to come at it from the point of view we will put in payback orders that also have the ability to deal with drug, alcohol and mental health issues but are more visible and are a lot tougher.” McLeish says that despite the current situation, he remains hopeful that Scotland can establish a fairer and more effective criminal justice system.

“I remain optimistic that reform is in the air, some positive steps have been taken but there is a long, long way to go. I want Scotland to be held up in international terms as having the most progressive and enlightened criminal justice system in the world. We are far from that. I want to be known as a nation that doesn’t put people behind bars that don’t need to be there, and I want it to be a nation where everyone takes a pride in rehabilitating offenders, protecting the public, cutting crime and actually putting taxpayers’ money to much better use.”

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