Equal justice: women in the criminal justice system

Written by Kate Shannon on 12 April 2018 in Inside Politics

How does the criminal justice system in Scotland affect women?


In September, the Scottish Government announced that two ‘mini prisons’ for women would be opened by 2020.

The community custody units (CCUs) will be built in Glasgow’s Maryhill and in Dundee and will each provide facilities for around 20 low-risk offenders. Women who will serve their custodial sentence in a CCU will be assessed appropriately as suitable for serving out this part of their sentence closer to their community and with greater community access.  

The government and Scottish Prison Service (SPS) said, crucially, the CCUs will take a new approach to the management of women in custody with a strong focus on partnership working and co-production.


Michael Matheson, Cabinet Secretary for Justice, said: “These new community custody units will assist women to maintain links with their families and accommodate them close to both their communities and the agencies that can ensure they are able to move away from offending.  

“Work on these units will respond to the changing profile of the female prison population, and the risk profile of women in custody. The Scottish Prison Service plan that these first two units, and the national facility, will be open by the end of 2020.

“This work is part of a wider transformation within our prisons, professionalising the role of prison officers, ensuring a focus on rehabilitation, and supporting the reintegration of people leaving custody.”

Colin McConnell, SPS chief executive, said he wants these new units to be “a real part of the communities that they are in”.

He added: “We know that we cannot deliver this on our own and we relish the opportunity of working with council colleagues in Glasgow and Dundee, local health colleagues, third sector partners and the communities themselves to develop radical new ways of caring and supporting those women who have found themselves within the criminal justice system.

“Getting it right for those in custody is a key step in ensuring the safety of the entire community. By successfully reintegrating offenders, we reduce risk and create safer communities.”

In 2015, plans for a £75m new women’s jail to replace HMP Cornton Vale were scrapped, with Matheson saying that Scotland must take a more “radical and ambitious” approach to female offending. 

A report by former lord advocate Dame Elish Angiolini in 2012 recommended that women prisoners should be dealt with in smaller numbers.

She said: “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.

“Undoubtedly, some women must be in prison to protect the public and to mark the seriousness of their crime.

“But for women who are repeatedly committing lower level offences, we need to get better at tackling the root cause of their problems in the community, and allowing the community to benefit from the punishments imposed.”

Cornton Vale near Stirling was built in 1975 and had the capacity for 307 women. Demolition of the prison got under way last year and the SPS is developing plans for a smaller national prison for 80 women at the site. About 110 prisoners were transferred from Cornton Vale to HMP Polmont in August.

On the other side of the coin, some of the crimes which affect women the most are the hardest to tackle.

In February, it was announced that the conviction rate for rape and attempted rape in Scotland had fallen to its lowest level in eight years. Statistics showed that 39 per cent of those taken to court were found guilty, down from 49 per cent on the previous year.The conviction rate is the lowest since 2008/09 when it was 37 per cent.

Sandy Brindley of Rape Crisis Scotland, said: “Rape is a crime which can take a great deal of courage to report, and the past decade has seen increasing numbers of women and men coming forward to report what has happened to them to the police. In a year where there were 1,878 rapes and attempted rapes reported to the police, there were only 98 convictions. 

“The vast majority of reported rapes never make it to court. 

“The most common reason rape survivors are given for this is the requirement in Scotland for corroboration. This disproportionately affects rape cases, and we believe that the time has come to look again at removing the requirement for corroboration.

“We also need to look at why only two in five cases which reach court lead to a conviction. The Scottish Government recently introduced judicial directions for rape cases, to enable judges to provide factual information to juries about commonly misunderstood issues such as delays in report to the police or lack of physical injury. 

“More needs to be done to ensure that people sitting on rape juries make decisions based on evidence, rather than misunderstandings about reactions to rape.

“The figures released show that 17 per cent of rape and attempted trials result in a not proven verdict. This is far higher than for any other crime.”
Matheson said that while the relatively low conviction rate for rape reflects, in part, the challenging evidential requirements to prove this crime, “the government will continue to seek to strengthen the law where possible, and how such cases are dealt with”.

“Since last April, judges are required to direct juries in certain sexual offence cases on how to consider evidence, specifically explaining why a victim may not physically resist their attacker, nor report an offence immediately,” he added.

“Our ongoing jury research is also examining how juries reach decisions and use the ‘not proven’ verdict.”

Meanwhile, earlier this year, the Scottish Parliament passed what was hailed as ground-breaking new domestic abuse legislation.

For the first time, the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill will make psychological abuse, as well as physical, a criminal offence. The legislation will cover coercive and controlling behaviour, which wasn’t able to be prosecuted easily under other laws.

Dr Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid, said she was “excited” about the legislation.

She added: “Women have been telling us for 40 years that it is psychological and emotional abuse that is the most traumatic for them and the hardest to recover from, yet for such a long time we had absolutely no tools in legislation to take their stories seriously and hold abusers accountable for the untold harm that they wreak.”

Scott said it was the first bill in the world to create a way of “victimless prosecution”.

She said: “It does not blame women and it does not mean women have to come into court and prove how harmed they have been by the abuse.

“In fact, it is all structured in looking at the behaviour of the perpetrator and asking, ‘would a reasonable person think that this could be harmful?’.”

Matheson said the passing of the legislation was “a momentous day”.

He said: “Attitudes towards domestic abuse have changed considerably since this parliament was established in 1999.

“Back then, some were of the mindset that domestic abuse – especially where it did not involve physical violence – was a private matter.

“I am very grateful to the domestic abuse survivors who presented their evidence to the Justice Committee.

“Their courage helped shaped the legislation I brought to parliament, and their actions will help the justice system prosecute those who commit one of society’s most insidious crimes.”

In October, new domestic abuse figures showed there were 58,810 incidents in 2016/17, up one per cent from 2015/16.

The figures – recorded by Police Scotland – also show 79 per cent had a female victim and a male accused.

On the back of the new legislation, around 14,000 Police Scotland officers and staff are to receive enhanced training to assess instances of psychological abuse and coercive control in domestic abuse settings.

Assistant Chief Constable Gillian MacDonald, Police Scotland, said: “We know that the controlling behaviours, used by perpetrators to maintain power and control over victims, can be both devious and devastating. 

“However, to those outwith the relationship, the ways in which a perpetrator will conceal their actions can often make them appear innocuous in isolation.  

“We have committed to this critical training to address these issues so our officers and staff can better recognise the signs of controlling behaviours in domestic abuse, support victims and bring perpetrators to justice.”




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