Judges urged to consider community sentences over prison for vulnerable women

10 June 2019, 06:48


Legal reforms will see judges urged to consider community sentences over prison sentences of 12 months or less for vulnerable women.

Around 90% of women sent to jail are given a custodial sentence of a year or less, and Scotland has one of the highest female prison populations in northern Europe.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said extending the presumption against short prison sentences would mean more women - many of whom have experienced abuse, mental health and addiction problems - would receive a community-based sentence.

Mr Yousaf added: "By extending the presumption to 12 months or less we are asking judges to give serious consideration to community alternatives that prioritise rehabilitation.

"Many of the women currently serving prison sentences have complex needs that contribute to frequent offending.

"We should be helping them tackle those problems in the community so they can escape prison's revolving door, rather than taking away what stability they have in their home and family.

"More than two thirds of female prisoners are mothers and we must not underestimate the trauma to their children of seeing their parent go to jail.

"From stressful home and school moves, to poor academic performance and mental health risks, parental imprisonment can trigger lifelong issues.

"It may even make children more likely to be drawn into the criminal justice system as adults.

"We have an opportunity to change how we tackle the causes of offending behaviour and the positive ripple effect to our communities could be huge."

The order will extend the current presumption - not a ban - against sentences of three months or less to 12 months or less.

A report by the Scottish Prison Service found around 60% of female prisoners reported four or more adverse childhood experiences, while around half reported being involved with problem drug taking outside custody.

Tom Halpin, chief executive of Sacro, which provides criminal justice services to help reduce offending in communities, said: "We already know short prison sentences are ineffective in rehabilitating people but the adverse effect on women particularly can be damaging - for them and their families.

"The reasons why women become involved in offending are complex and varied.

"These root causes often involve trauma and are best addressed by providing the appropriate support within the community where family relations can be maintained.

"We must not underestimate the effect on children of having a mother in prison.

"This experience is often extremely damaging on their development and life chances and can increase their chances of becoming involved in the criminal justice system later.

"Too often, women receive short sentences simply because of their inability to meet the requirements of the system rather than the harm they have caused.

"Sensible, robust and supportive community alternatives are so much more appropriate and effective in changing lives. Sacro fully supports these reforms that will reduce the number of women in prison."