Natalie McGarry's sentencing exposed Scotland's judicial priorities

Written by Dani Garavelli on 20 June 2019 in Comment

Dani Garavelli on how Scotland's values are not reflected in its wide use of custody as a solution

Dani Garavelli - credit Nick Grigg/Holyrood

It was odd how much outrage was provoked by the jailing of Natalie McGarry – now released pending an appeal - for embezzling tens of thousands of pounds.

Not that she was undeserving of compassion, of course. Anyone destroyed by their own weakness is to be pitied. And she did cut a sorry figure in court: sad, alone and unwilling to take responsibility for her actions.

I agree, too, that jailing someone like her, who poses no danger to society, is counterproductive, especially given she has a young daughter in need of her support.

It’s just that it appeared to come as a shock to many commentators that a woman with probable mental health problems and a dependent child could end up in custody. 

In fact, every year, hundreds of young mothers with fewer advantages than McGarry are given jail sentences for crimes less serious than the ones she committed.

Just like the former SNP MP, they are handcuffed and sent down. On short sentences with little access to rehabilitation programmes, many will be released back into the community to start the cycle over again. Meanwhile, their children suffer through separation, and the damage passes down a generation.

This revolving door of justice is lamentable, but it’s not new. Despite our conceit of ourselves as liberal, here in Scotland we have one of the highest rates of imprisonment in western Europe.

Of particular concern is the way the Scottish criminal justice service treats women. Around 90 per cent of those convicted are serving sentences of less than a year, a significant proportion of thosefor shoplifting; almost two-thirds of female prisoners have children; a third are on remand.

This issue has been on the political agenda for almost two decades. In 1999, the chief inspector of prisons, Clive Fairweather, called for the female prison population – then 200 – to be halved. And in 2012, the then lord advocate, Elish Angiolini, demanded a radical ‘reworking’ of the system, including the demolition of controversial Cornton Vale and the building of smaller community-based units.

Despite this, the Scottish Government set in motion plans for a super prison in Greenock. With an irony lost on no one, the grassroots group which campaigned most vociferously to shift the government’s approach was Women for Independence (WfI) – the organisation from which McGarry stole the largest sum.

Though many of its members also belonged to the SNP, WfI forced the party to back down on the super prison, then launched Justice Watch, pushing for alternatives to custody for all but the most serious female offenders.

Progress has been slow. Work has begun on a much smaller unit at Cornton Vale and sites for other community units have been identified in Dundee and Glasgow. But the full closure of the women’s prison, planned for 2018, has been delayed until 2020.  

Last year, 21-year-old Katie Allan killed herself in Polmont after she was jailed, despite posing no serious threat to society.

In 2011, the Scottish Government introduced a presumption against sentences of less than three months, which is now being extended to a presumption against sentences of less than a year.  

At the same time, it brought in community payback orders (CPOs) to replace community orders. The latest figures suggest one in five of all those convicted of crimes is now ordered to serve a community sentence compared to just one in seven a decade ago, yet around 1,000 women a year are still being jailed.

CPOs, which involve work such as cleaning beaches and removing graffiti, benefit the community, and, where appropriate, they will also involve short-term treatment for alcohol, drugs and mental health problems.

But many women (and men) in the criminal justice system have experienced multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). A large proportion have been in care and suffered abuse and multiple bereavements.

If the cycle of offending is to be broken, they require long-term, trauma-informed schemes. Such schemes are expensive and despite the Scottish Government’s extra funding to local justice community partnerships, their provision is patchy.

For the last four years, however, the Probation Board of Northern Ireland has been piloting enhanced combination orders – intensive programmes involving psychologists, parenting support and sometimes restorative justice – as an alternative to sentences of less than a year. They appear to be having an impact on reoffending rates. In Scandinavia, criminal justice policy is driven not by politicians but by criminologists and other professionals in the field.

It is an indictment of our value system that it took the the jailing of a well-known, middle-class woman with former friends in high places to rekindle this debate. Still, better that it should happen on the back of McGarry’s imprisonment than not at all.

Witnessing the fall of this once-popular woman – who was at the centre of the 2014 indyref campaign – has proved a tipping point for many commentators who are now demanding more alternatives to custody. It would be good to think they might extend their outrage to those less relatable female offenders who have suffered the same fate, and lobby for more investment in the kind of initiatives that make community rehabilitation feasible.

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