Kenny MacAskill was Cabinet Secretary for Justice from 2007 to November 2014. This is an edited version of an article appearing in today’s edition of The National (http://www.thenational.scot/).
Michael Matheson deserves great credit for his decision not to proceed with HMP Inverclyde. It’s the right thing to do – not just to tackle re-offending but for the public purse. The evidence is clear, community based options are much more successful in tackling re-offending and in aiding rehabilitation than imprisonment. Moreover, the cost of construction sees limited public funds poured into concrete not into solving the root problem.
It’s also heartening that the decision gathered widespread political support which should be welcomed for it affords a huge opportunity for justice policy in Scotland. If it ends the culture of opposing whatever the Scottish Government proposes irrespective of its validity that can only be a good thing.
At long last it may be possible for the social democratic consensus that predominates in Scotland to be the basis of policy decisions. If this allows Scotland a chance to address justice issues more akin to Scandinavia and other Northern European countries then that is a significant breakthrough. Major penal and criminal justice reforms, whether in Finland or the Netherlands, have only worked on the basis of wide political buy in. This is a chance for Scotland to follow suit and should therefore be taken.
Addressing the specific issues of women offenders is right. The statistics on mental health, substance abuse and being the victim of sexual or domestic violence are truly shameful and are further compounded by the issue of childcare. Having broken the glass ceiling in the Scottish Cabinet, and with work ongoing in board rooms and beyond, we cannot ignore those women who are most vulnerable and deprived. Tackling female inequality has to be for all not just the talented and ambitious.
However, that then raises the issue of gender equality as well as female inequality. For sure there are many more serious and violent offenders in the male prison estate who require incarceration; but many more don’t. The statistics for men are also shameful for a progressive society. Mental health remains the single biggest issue for the SPS. Out with the prison walls more young men still take their own lives than that of any other – indicative along with many other statistics of a lack of self-esteem never mind hope. Substance abuse and alcohol in particular a key driver of offending; the levels of transition from being in care to being in custody quite shocking; the number of ex-servicemen incarcerated equally so whether PTSD or otherwise and the extent of sexual abuse or violence suffered whilst hard to collate in a society where ‘big boys neither cry nor tell’ exists. Added to that is parental alienation that’s an issue for children of male prisoners too with effects down on through the generations.
So now is the time to seek gender equality in the prison estate and wider justice policies not just the cabinet and wider society. Sympathy for female prisoners needs matched by understanding of male offenders. Seeking to go hard on one whilst liberal on the other would be a fundamental mistake and would ignore the evidence of inequality and deprivation at the root of much offending for both. Both the Scottish Government and the opposition should take that on board for future actions. The possibility of a social democratic consensus now exists and should be taken. Hopefully, that will be shown in addressing the bill on early automatic release. It would be a retrograde step for Government and opposition to play the law and order card on males whilst seeking a liberal profile on women.