Commission demands alternatives to custody are found, to slow the revolving door
A damning report into how female offending is tackled in Scotland has led to calls for the revamp of parts of the criminal justice system and even the end of the country’s sole femaleonly prison.
The number of women given custodial sentences in Scotland has almost doubled in the last decade, putting pressure on staff at Cornton Vale jail and limiting chances for effective rehabilitation.
Therefore it was announced last year that a commission, led by former Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini, would investigate the problem. Last week it recommended a number of changes, including the suggestion that minor offenders would best serve their sentences in specialist justice centres operated by probation officers, social workers and drug support staff.
One facility that was visited by commission members was the 218 Service in Glasgow, which is operated by the social care charity Turning Point Scotland. It provides what it calls a holistic, person-centred approach to helping women tackle their offending, its causes and its impact.
Staff at the facility offer programmes that include assessments, counselling and support, group work and residential detox. It has received widespread praise since it became operational in 2003. In the last year 319 women started a programme with 218 Service.
Martin Cawley, chief executive at Turning Point Scotland, says: “In essence it’s a service that developed a number of years ago, interestingly in response to some of the issues experienced at that time – which like now are increased numbers at Cornton Vale and a lack of good approaches that had any sustainable impact on women’s offending behaviour.
“It is recognised there is a range of issues associated with womens’ offending behaviour,it might be substance misuse, issues relating to mental health, so the organisation developed a model as an alternative to custody that could tackle these problems.
“So one of the aspects at 218 was there would be a residential aspect to it and also a day support aspect to it that would include things like therapeutic programmes that might focus on the nature of offending or substance misuse which precipitated the offending.”
He adds: “Some of the women are referred directly to 218 from the courts. Instead of getting sent to prison the sheriff will recommend 218 as an option, while it may not be compulsory in terms of a sentence it is very much ‘here’s your last chance saloon’ sort of thing. There could be some women that come in post-liberation from prison, or come in to use the day service postliberation.
“We work closely with the courts and very closely with criminal justice social workers so that when they are putting their reports for the sheriff they may identify that 218 may be a better option because of certain issues or circumstances.”
The pressure on Cornton Vale, which was built 37 years ago, is increasing – last month the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research found Sheriffs were increasingly likely to hand down custodial sentences, and longer terms, to women than would have been the case previously. Last year the female prisoner population stood at 435, and to accommodate the rise prison bosses had to open a new wing at Saughton Prison in Edinburgh for around 100 inmates.
Cawley says there is a host of reasons the current system has failed to reverse the number of women in the criminal justice system.
He says: “There is a whole complex list of reasons. Obviously one is often a lack of robust alternatives for sentencers and they might feel they have to send someone to prison because there is nothing else outside that is effective and that they have confidence in. Maybe there is a feeling that there is a lack of supervision and a lack of through-care, and fewer opportunities to divert women at an early point in their offending journey.
“I think effective through-care is something that would be of value across the whole criminal justice provision, not just with women. But I think it is helpful particularly with women as they often have those very unique circumstances, they might have issues around family or issues around support or associated issues like being in abusive relationships so often that makes it more complex.
“I think one of the main drivers of programmes like 218 is reconnecting you back to your community and it is about building that sustainability around you and resilience and often that resilience comes from family.”
The Turning Point chief executive believes financial pressures on the government may act as a barrier to replicating similar services to 218 elsewhere in the country. Indeed in an interview with this magazine earlier in the month, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said: “I know from sheriffs how much they admire the 218 service. We obviously have limited funds given the huge cuts we face but what we are looking to do is ask how we can replicate that or at least some of the facilities, perhaps sometimes a bit cheaper because you have to cut your cloth to the budget you have got. But what we have to do is try to find a way where sheriffs can deal with offending without sending people to a prison that isn’t working.”
Cawley says that components of the 218 model could be used, for example centres would not always need to have a residential feature. He says: “218 is something that can be rolled out in several forms and it doesn’t always have to have the residential element, which is probably the Government’s issue because it is the more expensive part. But the daytime element should never be underestimated and that is about building a robust therapeutic programme, and that is accessible and personspecific, it is about creating the right culture so that women feel they can use the service and it is beneficial. You need to build up that trusting relationship that helps people engage and support people to reconnect with their families if they can.”
He adds: “Finance will inevitably be a barrier, but while we recognise it may be difficult to roll out wholescale numbers of 218 across the country, what we could do is have 218-like services that have some residential elements but focus on more community outreach support and through-care relationships with women post-liberation and work closely with local courts and try to perform service as a form of diversion.”