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Gender matters in the criminal justice system: 5 years of progress?

Ahead of an event tonight at the Scottish Parliament, Engender's Policy Manager Emma Trottier reflects on the five years since the publishing of a report by the Commission on Women Offenders, and asks where Scotland stands on the issue of women in the criminal justice system.

When we look at the criminal justice system, it can be hard to know where to begin. It’s immense. We have the police, crown office, sentencers, the prison service, and community organisations, who all play a role in building and maintaining a just, peaceful and safe society. To slightly narrow our focus, we’re looking at women in the criminal justice system. In particular, we’re looking back over the last five years to see whether we’ve progressed in supporting women through and out of the criminal justice system.

Five years ago, the women’s prison population in Scotland was at an all-time high, having doubled over a ten year period. In response to this crisis, the Scottish Government set up an independent commission to review policies and practices that could reduce the number of women in prison. The outcome of the independent commission was a report, known as the Angiolini report, which outlined 37 measures the Scottish Government could take to reduce women’s reoffending and reverse the increase in Scotland’s female prisoner population. The report recommended sentencing reforms, including alternatives to remand and to prosecution, and re-designing how we deliver services to women who come into conflict with the law. While some reforms have been implemented, it’s unknown whether the Scottish Government intends to pursue the remaining recommendations. Despite committing to 33 of the 37 recommendations, and to examining the remaining four, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice recently announced that no further annual update will be provided to Parliament on progress towards meeting the Angiolini recommendations. Does this announcement signal a refusal to implement the outstanding recommendations? We’re still not sure, but if the Scottish Government chooses to distance itself from the recommendations of the commission it established, questions will need to be answered about alternate plans to reduce the number of women in Scottish prisons.

While the imprisonment rate for women in Scotland has decreased, it still remains one of the highest in Northern Europe. Each year across Scotland, 3,000 women are imprisoned, almost two thirds of whom are on remand (being detained in prison pending trial or sentencing). Though the number of women in prison is decreasing, the figure is still worrying, particularly given that 79 percent of prison sentences imposed on women are for low-level offences, which includes offences like shoplifting and breach of the peace. Research and evidence tell us that women fare better in the long-term – meaning they’re less likely to reoffend – when they serve a community sentence rather than a prison sentence. Community-based services can help address the complex needs of women while keeping women in their communities instead of isolating them in prisons. Services like the Willow Service, the 218 service and Tomorrow’s Women support women with criminal justice involvement by addressing the root causes of offending and by improving women’s health, safety and well-being. The difference these and other community organisations make to women’s lives, and to our collective safety and prosperity, cannot be overstated.

Many women who come into contact with the criminal justice system have complex needs that relate to their socio-economic circumstances, histories of abuse, mental health issues, and substance abuse problems. And many of them are repeat low-level offenders, cycling in and out of the criminal justice system. To respond to the experiences and needs of women, Scotland is embarking on significant reforms to its women’s custodial estate – or to its prison system for women. The Scottish Government is investing funds into the design and construction of a new prison for women, as well as into the development of five community custody units for women. Counterintuitively, to reduce our female prisoner population, we’re building new prisons.

Under the right circumstances and in the right conditions, prison may act as a catalyst for change, but it is not the answer to our social problems. Reducing the number of women in custody in Scotland requires looking outside the criminal justice system. There needs to be a concerted effort to tackle the root causes of offending. Reducing inequalities is vital, but that requires a commitment by agencies across Scotland to increase accessibility to safe and affordable housing; to provide adequate support to families and neighbourhoods, including health care, mental health care and childcare; and to ensure opportunities for meaningful employment. It means building a more equal society, where people can lead safe, fulfilling and dignified lives.

Today, we mark the five years that have elapsed since the Angiolini report was released. This evening in the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Working Group on Women’s Offending, of which Engender is a member, is hosting a meeting to review progress on female imprisonment in Scotland. It will reflect that while some positive change has happened, much remains to be done to reduce the number of women in Scottish prisons.

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