The sentencing of women with mental health problems and their treatment by the criminal justice system should be re-examined, according to a report published today by the Equal Opportunities Committee.
The report, Female Offenders in the Criminal Justice System, assesses the prison experience for, and background of, female offenders, particularly the extent to which prison helps prevent women re-offending.
The committee also recommends improved language and literacy services at Cornton Vale prison, and that more could and should be done to rehabilitate women in prison, particularly those serving short-term sentences and those on remand.
Furthermore, the committee stresses the importance of improving relationships between imprisoned mothers and their children. This is considered to be particularly important given the alarming figures showing that around half of female prisoners’ children are imprisoned as adults.
Committee Convener Margaret Mitchell MSP said: “While the report’s focus is on female offenders this does not mean that the committee is not interested in male offenders or that it considers female offenders should be treated more favourably than male offenders.
"However, there is clear evidence that in some situations men and women should be treated differently. The committee learned that women’s experiences of the criminal justice system are different from men’s and that some of these differences may stem from or result in discrimination or inequality.
"Given this, more action needs to be taken by the Scottish Government and other public bodies to prevent re-offending by female offenders, by fully addressing their needs and individual circumstances.
"Members of the committee were deeply concerned to hear that some women deliberately commit offences purely to access the services provided in Cornton Vale prison.
"In view of this, we have highlighted the work being undertaken at the 218 Centre in Glasgow. This provides an excellent example of how, where appropriate, targeted, comprehensive services can be provided to women in the community rather than in prison. The types of services it provides could be replicated across Scotland where there is a demonstrable demand.”
The committee further recommended that:
- More could and should be done to stop drugs circulating in Cornton Vale.
- The Scottish Government should explain how they will address the issue of women being more harshly sentenced than men.
- There should be more female-appropriate community sentences and these should be better funded.
- Better co-ordination is needed to improve links between women in prison and those who can help them when they go back to their communities.
The Equal Opportunities Committee decided to undertake an inquiry after taking evidence on gender differences in the criminal justice system from, amongst others, the Lord Advocate, Elish Angiolini, and the then Governor of Cornton Vale women’s prison, Ian Gunn. The committee’s decision was also informed by a visit to Cornton Vale in October 2008, where members met female offenders, prison staff and other groups.
The committee received 15 responses to its call for written evidence and took oral evidence between February and June 2009. It also received a private briefing from two sheriffs from the Sheriff’s Association.
Members also visited the 218 Centre in Glasgow and Hydebank Wood Prison and Young Offenders Centre in Belfast.