Turn off the tap – A bold strategy for women and justice in Scotland

TURN OFF THE TAP – A Bold Strategy for Women and Justice in Scotland

SWGWO along with the SCCCJ held a one day workshop on 1 April to discuss next steps following your courageous decision not to proceed with plans for HMP Inverclyde. We are writing to bring your attention to a number of key themes that emerged during this meeting.

There was some frustration that the debate following the decision has become overly focused on imprisonment and the custodial estate. We accept that thought needs to be given to how we care for the small number of women in Scotland who need to be in prison for reasons of public safety. However, we would like to see efforts redoubled to ‘turn off the tap’: to stop women who offend becoming caught up in the criminal justice system wherever possible.

This strategy builds on your current work on women and justice but also reflects on the many eminent reports from the past 15 years on how to support vulnerable women in the criminal justice system in Scotland. This strategy is not just an evidence-based approach, it is an ethical framework based on human rights, equalities and social justice.

In this letter we outline our approach to “turn off the tap” to the female custodial estate and propose a strategy for justice reinvestment away from the custodial estate towards our communities.

At the event on 1 April, the Chair, Professor Andrew Coyle CMG, said:

The starting point for radical reform will not be found within the prison system, no matter how enlightened that may 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.”

He went on to say:

 “The question which faces us today is whether the criminal justice system is best equipped to deal with all these complex needs relating to “social circumstances”, previous history of abuse and mental health and addiction problems”. The conclusion of the Commission on Women Offenders was quite clear. 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 have been exhausted.”

 Our strategy below follows a similar pathway from (i) prevention, (ii) diversion & alternatives to prosecution and (iii) sentencing issues. The outcome being that we turn off the tap supplying vulnerable women into the custodial estate. Prison should be reserved for serious offenders who pose a risk to public safety.

To quote Baroness Vivien Stern:

When we take women who are sick, abused, addicted, and poverty-stricken and instead of giving them help we give them punishment that is not justice. That is cruelty and we need to stop it

In order to ensure that imprisonment is only used as a last resort for those women who have committed the most serious crimes, it is essential that steps are taken to immediately reduce the capacity of the women’s prison estate. This would signal the Scottish Government’s clear intent to adopt a bold strategy in relation to women caught up in the criminal justice system.

We believe the current proposals focusing on the female custodial estate are not bold enough. There is another paradigm – limit supply to the custodial estate and reinvest in our communities – turn off the tap.

We believe that the achievable full women’s prison estate should comprise in total three 50 bed units in the west, east and north. The number of women in prison needs to be reduced sharply over the next five years in order to make this a reality.  This requires a restriction in the availability of prison for remand or sentence. We believe that this should be achieved by removing the opportunity to remand when there is no real prospect of a custodial sentence being imposed and by restricting the use of prison for offences which are not likely to result in sentences of less than a years imprisonment.

There is a need to discuss in detail the services and practices that should be adopted by the women’s prison(s), and in respect of throughcare and resettlement, but the most urgent issue is to reduce the number of women who are sent to prison. The money saved by closing Cornton Vale and adopting more measures for prevention and diversion can be reinvested to achieve radical reform, as outlined in the blueprints below.

Turn off the tap: Policy and practice blueprint


Women in the criminal justice system are known to be vulnerable and, most often, have themselves been victimised. Therefore:

  • Women should always be treated with respect and humanity, no matter what circumstances bring them into contact with the criminal justice system
  • The focus should remain upon the individual, and not solely her behaviour or offence


There are three key points at which action can be taken to prevent women from entering prison. The Scottish Government should use its legislative, policy-making and funding powers to ensure action is taken at each point.


  1. Prevention
  • Poverty underlies much criminal offending and homelessness often results from imprisonment. The Scottish Government should invest in welfare reform to lift women and children out of poverty. We suggest that the new income tax-raising powers that will take effect on 1 April 2016 could be used to mitigate the impact of welfare reform measures introduced by the UK Government.
  • No woman should ever lose her tenancy due to being remanded into custody, and no woman should ever be released from prison without a secure home to go to.
  • There should be a major investment in training in trauma informed practice. This should be made compulsory for all sectors working with vulnerable women.
  • Women who live chaotic lives often fail to access services because they cannot travel to appointments, or cannot manage strictly timed appointments. Health, social work and voluntary services must become more accessible by offering flexible working practices and outreach. The Scottish Government should provide extra funding to services that adapt in this way.
  • Services for women should be mapped, and funding should be made available to ensure that there are suitable services available throughout the country.
  • Scotland currently has the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe at only eight years of age. https://www.crin.org/en/home/ages/europe .SCCCJ strongly supports this being changed to at least 12, in line with UN recommendations (UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), CRC General Comment No. 10 (2007): Children’s Rights in Juvenile Justice, 25 April 2007, CRC/C/GC/10 Paragraph 32) and would like the Scottish government to consider raising it to 15 in line with the Nordic countries such as Norway, Sweden, Finland.


  1. Diversion and alternatives to prosecution
  • Services, such as community justice centres, that support women in need, should be funded to provide a 24 hour on-call service to the police, so that the police are supported to find alternative solutions for women at risk of arrest or detention. Triage diversion should be available in every custody suite.
  • If the police judge that arrest is inevitable, there must be immediate arrangements made for the care of any dependent children, and the woman should be involved in those arrangements, as far as practicable.
  • Police Scotland should highlight in their report to the Procurator Fiscal whether a person is suitable for diversion, taking into consideration the victim and community, thus helping Procurators Fiscal to quickly identify suitable cases for diversion.
  • Prosecutors should always consider diversion from prosecution, and should play a key role in achieving the Scottish Government’s target to reduce the number of women in prison.
  • Prosecutors should always have up to date information on the availability of services for women in their area, to whom they can make referrals as an alternative to prosecution.
  • Prosecutors should be able to access services at any time, and the Scottish Government should provide funding to enable appropriate services to respond to a request from COPFS to provide support to a woman who would otherwise be prosecuted.


  1. Sentencing
  • We request that the Scottish Government considers an increase in the presumption against sentence to 6 months or be even bolder and go up to 12 months.
  • Legislation should be enacted to ensure that if there is no likelihood of a custodial sentence being handed down, the court cannot remand the accused to custody.
  • Prosecutors should not object to an application for bail if there are suitable alternatives available such as supervised bail or electronic monitoring.
  • Every court should maintain a current map of local services so that the full range of available sentencing options can be considered in each case.
  • Community Justice Centres, or other appropriate services, should be funded to provide a liaison service to the courts to avoid any situation where a woman is sentenced to custody in the belief that such a sentence would be beneficial, or would secure services not otherwise available.
  • The Scottish Government should support the judiciary and the legal profession to understand the availability of, and make use of, the full range of sentencing options such as supervised bail, suspended sentences, and electronic monitoring (EM).
  • Services should be funded to support women for whom electronic monitoring is deemed appropriate, so that EM is not a stand-alone sentence.


Turn off the tap: Justice reinvestment blueprint

Close HMP & YOI Cornton Vale.

Although we do not currently have the figures for the running costs of HMP & YOI Cornton Vale, the report of the Scottish Prison’s Commission “Scotland’s Choice” made the following statement on cost savings in the Scottish prison system:

We want our prisons to hold dangerous and serious offenders safely and securely, and to support their ability to lead law abiding lives when they are released. Only about one-third of prisoners manage to avoid reconviction for two years after being released. Does this level of success justify the level of investment or are there other options where we would be more wise to invest? If the average number of people held in prison were reduced by even 500, this would represent a notional annual saving to the taxpayer of £15 million to £20 million. Conversely, increasing the prison system by 700 places will cost an additional £21.7 million to £28 million annually to operate. The notional savings resulting from reducing the prison population by 700 would for example, be enough to fund a national roll-out of an internationally recognised initiative to wipe out illiteracy across Scotland.(Source: Alec Spencer (2008),‘The Unnecessary Cost of Imprisonment,’lecture, The Future of Prisons in Scotland Conference)

Reduce homelessness related to remand and unnecessary imprisonment. The cost to national government of each case of homelessness is estimated to be £26,000 per year. For local authorities to evict, rehouse and re-let (excluding legal costs) it is estimated to be £23, 856 per tenancy[1]. If 10 instances of homelessness could be prevented each year, the saving for national government and local authorities would be £260,000 and £238, 560 respectively.

The economic and social cost per drug user in Scotland is estimated to be £50,000 per year.[2] If 10 women can be helped out of drug addiction, the economy would benefit by £607,030 each year. The average cost of one DTTO order (including drug courts) is £9,6053

It costs an average of £5,328 per week, or £277,056 per year, for each place in secure accommodation.[3] Preventing 2 girls going into secure accommodation would save £554,112 per year.

The current unit cost of diversion from prosecution in Scotland is £332 (CJSW costs). The average prosecution costs for summary and justice of the peace courts are £342 with the average court costs of £115 and average legal assistance costs of £315 on top of that making a total unit cost of £772 source: Table 2 estimates of the cost of criminal procedure and Table 3 estimate of the unit costs of community services / disposals in file 00474266_crimjustice costs 2015.xls

Support women to remain in the community and to take up employment. The average wage in Scotland is £27, 045.[4] This salary would attract tax of £3,400, and National Insurance of £2,285.[5] If 10 women at risk of imprisonment can be supported into paid employment instead, they would contribute £34,000 in tax and £22,850 in National Insurance, in addition to their positive contribution to the Scottish economy in general. This positive contribution would be in addition to the cost savings outlined above.



[2] Scottish Devolution and Social Policy: Evidence from the First Decade” (2012), edited by Murray Leith, Tim Laxton, Iain McPhee who cite Casey et al, Scottish Government Social Research (2009) that “…the cost of £60,703 per problematic drug user.http://www.gov.scot/Resource/Doc/224480/0060586.pdf

[3] http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0047/00474429.pdf



[5] http://www.netsalarycalculator.co.uk/27000-after-tax/


Mental Welfare Concerns for Female Offenders

 This report again underlines the shockingly high rates of victimisation and abuse that women offenders have experienced (half had experienced violent relationships and 73% had experienced sexual abuse).

The Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland has published a report on the mental health of women detained by the criminal courts. (http://www.mwcscot.org.uk/media/190441/women_offenders_final_report.pdf ) The report followed that of the Commission on Women Offenders, which highlighted the worryingly high incidence of mental health problems among the female prisoner population in Scotland. The MWCS report considered women offenders in both hospital and prison settings and looked in detail at the use of drugs and alcohol, contact with children and families, and domestic violence and abuse. Among its findings the Commission noted that “Women charged with incidents of violent and disruptive behaviour may have underlying mental health difficulties. Good assessments and appropriate alternatives to custody should be routinely available to the courts.” It also found that the women who were seen in a hospital setting received more support than those in prison. In relation to contact with family the report recommended that support to prevent family breakdown should be provided and suggested that technology such as Skype should be available to enable women to maintain contact with their children. The researchers found that most of the women in prison had at least 10, and some as many as 30, previous offences. This report again underlines the shockingly high rates of victimisation and abuse that women offenders have experienced (half had experienced violent relationships and 73% had experienced sexual abuse). As the report concludes, women’s prison service provision in Scotland is undergoing change; it is challenged to make appropriate changes in response to the clear evidence about women’s offending and women offenders.

 Dinah Aitken, SCCCJ, May 2014

Legal Aid: A national treasure?

Yearly, as SLAB publishes its annual report on legal aid expenditure, the press likes to highlight the highest paid individuals and firms from the criminal legal aid budget. The legal aid budget is rightly a matter of public comment as it involves public money, but even though some individuals earn at the higher end of the scale, most do not. Legal Aid is a very bureaucratic system and since it went online most of the bureaucracy falls to be dealt with by the firms applying for legal aid on behalf of their clients. This work is not paid for and has no doubt saved the scheme a sizeable sum since its introduction. The wider point, though, is whether the public treasures legal aid or begrudges its cost? The Law Society of Scotland has published a poll, conducted for it by Ipsos MORI, in which 83% of the public polled (n1000) expressed concern that if the legal aid budget is cut, the poorest members of society would be worst affected, 81% agreed that legal aid is a price worth paying for, regardless of cost, and only 10% thought that legal aid is a waste of public money. There are some important changes to the whole justice system under contemplation at present and it is vital that the public is engaged with these, and doesn’t perceive the debates as ones in which legal experts are simply trying to preserve their own self-interest. This small but significant survey, in which legal aid is identified as something of a national treasure, offers evidence that principles of justice are, in fact, highly valued in society. The report is available here