Women affected by the criminal justice system in Scotland: what next?

Andrew_CoyleThis is an extract from opening remarks by Professor Andrew Coyle CMG, former Director of the International Centre for Prison Studies, at a Consortium seminar on women affected by criminal justice, held in Edinburgh on the 1st April 2015.

Once or twice in our professional lives, if we are lucky, we may have an opportunity to be part of a radical change which has the potential to benefit society as a whole or at least a section of it.

I have spent the last 40 years working in and around prisons, first in Scotland, then elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and for the last twenty years all over the world. As the years have passed I have become stronger in my conviction that the prison as an institution should have a very narrow role to play in contributing to the safety of society and in helping those who have come into conflict with the criminal law with finding a path to re-entering civil society. In recent decades there have been many improvements in the way that prisons are managed but I cannot escape the conclusion that they remain 19th century institutions with a 21st century face.

It is difficult to know how to develop a 21st century model for dealing with people who come into contact with the criminal law. One option is to focus on the relatively small number of women who are in the prison system. In my experience of prison systems worldwide I have reached two inescapable conclusions. The first is that prisons are organised according to the needs of male prisoners who constitute the vast majority of those who are in prison. The second is that the profile of women who are imprisoned is quite different from those of men as is their response to being in prison.

The starting point for radical reform will not be found within the prison system, no matter how enlightened that might be. Consider the opening paragraph of the report of the Commission on Women Offenders, the Angiolini Report:

Many women in the criminal justice system are frequent re-offenders with complex needs that relate to their social circumstances, previous histories of abuse and mental health and addiction problems.

Let us stand this statement on its head:

Many women with complex needs that relate to their social circumstances, previous histories of abuse and mental health and addiction problems end up in the criminal justice system and are frequent re-offenders.

The solution to these problems lies beyond the criminal justice system in general and beyond the prison system in particular. The report of the Commission dealt first with alternatives to prosecution, then with alternatives to remand in custody and with sentencing issues before saying anything about imprisonment. Imprisonment, in other words, comes only at the end of a very long spectrum when all other alternatives had been exhausted.

The optimist in me thinks that perhaps now the stars are in closer alignment. The Report of the Commission on Women Offenders has been resurrected, the benefits of community justice are being reconsidered, the concept of a 21st century model of a large secure institution for women has been dismissed, crucially there would appear to be a large degree of consensus on this matter among the political parties – and we have a woman First Minister. If ever the stars were in alignment, it is now.

Two days ago the Chief Statistician for Scotland published the Criminal Justice Social Work Statistics for Scotland for 2013-14. He reported that

  • the number of cases diverted from prosecution has more than doubled over the last three years;
  • the number of social work orders has remained fairly stable over the last seven years, with a slight increase in the last year;
  • 91% of social work orders were community payback orders;
  • the successful completion of these orders has risen each year and has now reached 71% overall.

Just yesterday the Chief Statistician reported that the average number of reconvictions per offender has decreased by nearly six per cent from 2012 to 2013 and the reconviction rate has fallen by over four percent in the last ten years. So we are absolutely on the right trajectory, a trajectory which indicates that the moment is now for a radical reappraisal of how we deal with women in the criminal justice system in Scotland.

At the request of the Irish Government I am currently involved in a review of the Irish Prison system. Let me share with you some comparative facts.

  • In Scotland the rate of imprisonment per 100,000 of the population is 140; in Ireland it is 82; that is, almost half of the Scottish rate.
  • In Scotland women constitute 5.3% of the prison population; in Ireland the proportion is 3.5%.
  • In Ireland the rate of women in prison is 2.9 per 100,000 of the population; in Scotland the rate is 7.1 per 100,000.
  • In real numbers there are 106 women in the Dochas Centre in Dublin; they include all women who are serving long sentences or who are a threat to the community as well as women from the east and north of Ireland. In addition there are 18 women from the south and west of Ireland in Limerick Prison; a total of 124 women in prison in the country. That is an ‘Angiolini model’.
  • 57 women who were committed to prison, that is 31% of the total, are on temporary release in the community within the innovative “community return” programme. This is an intensive form of community supervision which involves work placements.

The lesson for Scotland is that Ireland has developed a dual strategy in respect of the use of imprisonment. The ‘front door’ strategy is long term and based on legislative and judicial change for dealing with women who come into the criminal justice system. What they call the ‘back door’ strategy is based on administrative changes which have lead to an immediate reduction in prison numbers. These strategies apply to men as well as to women.

I strongly recommend this model to the Scottish Government for consideration. In practical terms this would suggest that in respect of prison provision we should be considering an ‘Angiolini central hub’ with around 100 places and two or three small local units with about 20 places each.

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