Women in the criminal justice system

Written by Alan Robertson on 1 June 2016 in Inside Politics

A change in the use of custody for female offenders has been mooted, but the issues are complex

Almost four out of five women who come into the Willow service in Scotland’s capital meet the criteria for assessment as experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“That is significantly higher than the war veteran population in Edinburgh,” service manager Kirsty Pate told delegates at Holyrood’s ‘Women in the Criminal Justice System’ event last month.

Nine out of ten women referred to the service, which is targeted at those who have been through the criminal justice system, have experienced domestic abuse, while three in four have engaged in self-harming behaviours.


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“We had a woman who came into our service and started having really intrusive memories in the [tea/coffee] breaks of our groups,” said Pate.

“It took our key worker to sit down with her and try to help her work out what was going on. The fact that people put the kettle on was the trigger because each time she had been raped or abused by her partner, he said to her afterwards, ‘get the kettle on’.”

Tackling such trauma has been one of the factors underlying growing calls for a shift away from custody.

Almost a year ago the government announced plans for a new women’s prison, designed to hold almost a quarter of the current capacity of Cornton Vale, as well as five community-based custodial units each able to accommodate up to 20 women.

The units, which will be based in areas close to communities the women are from in order to maintain family contact, are considered a means to deliver intensive support to help overcome issues such as alcohol and drug use, mental health problems and domestic abuse trauma.

“There’s an awful lot of women who just think they’re not worth it,” said HMP Cornton Vale governor, Rhona Hotchkiss, operational lead for the development of the women’s custodial estate.

“There are an awful lot of women who look at what we’re planning and think, ‘that’s too good for the likes of us’. Just like in Cornton Vale, we get a lot of women saying, ‘this is far too easy, a prison should be much harder than this, the food is too good’.

“And it’s not. The conditions in Cornton Vale are not too good, it’s just that these women are so used to having nothing and expecting nothing and being told that they’re nothing.

“We’ve got a big job there to convince the women themselves that the community custody units are going to be a good thing.”

Workshops are running across the country to share blueprints of what the five units are expected to look like, while women in custody are also being consulted.

Locations have yet to be chosen, though the criteria will, for instance, include not being too close to a pub to avoid the potential hassle women and staff might get.

“It’s our vision that children will be able to come in and stay with their mum overnight, that the mum might be able to see them off to school or take them to school on Monday morning,” she said. “Not everybody all of the time, but we want the community custody units to be about rebuilding families.

“I say rebuilding but perhaps ‘building’ is the right word as well, because only about a third of women who come into custody actually have custody of their children. Around half of them have children, but only a third have custody.”     

Little is likely to change, however, without a shift in sentencing. A consultation on extending the presumption against short prison sentences was carried out before the Scottish Parliament election.

Whether a change would make much difference is open to question, with the wording of existing legislation “about as permissive as you can get”, according to Dr Cyrus Tata, director of the Centre for Law, Crime and Justice at the University of Strathclyde.

“Even if we go to 12 months, which is more or less consistent with summary powers with a couple of exceptions – in other words, they can’t often give 13 months – this caveat [in the legislation] still allows the sentencer to say, ‘I don’t consider anything else to be appropriate, therefore you’re getting nine months, end of story’; it will still happen,” said Tata.

The “sky wouldn’t fall in” if certain offences were made “normally non-imprisonable”, the professor of law and criminal justice added.

“Unless we really grasp decision-making about who goes into prison then we could easily be back here in 15 to 20 years’ time with an increased number of women in prison and indeed men,” said Tata.

He labelled the abolition of automatic early release for all prisoners serving over four years “the most cynical legislation I’ve ever seen”, which “knowingly increases the numbers in prison”.

Meanwhile, a renewed emphasis on rehabilitative work within prisons, coupled with squeezed community justice services, risks “unintended consequences” as sentencers potentially consider custody the best option for reasons other than the offence committed.

“We should exclude rehabilitation or trying to do good for someone as a ground for passing a sentence of imprisonment,” added Tata.

“I don’t mean to say that prison should not be rehabilitative, I absolutely think that it should... but that needs to be enveloped within this broader sentencing principle, which says sentences of imprisonment should be reserved for serious offending.”

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