Women’s Offending in Scotland

Imprisonment as a cure – How should Scotland be treating vulnerable women with offending behaviour in the 21st Century – as prisoners or patients?

“… we clearly have a problem. The evidence is overwhelming from all over the world that the women who end up in trouble with the law, arrested, charged and convicted are nearly all, apart from a small minority, people who need, not society’s prisons and its punishments, but the help and support that society can offer – on grounds of justice. On the grounds of wanting a safer society. On the grounds of meeting the state’s positive obligations to victims. On the grounds of better public health. On all those grounds we should be dealing with these women in a different way.”

Baroness Vivien Stern 2010. ["An Unmet Commitment: Women and the Justice System in Scotland". Apex Scotland Annual Lecture, 7th September 2010, Signet Library, Edinburgh.]


‘Who were the women who, day by day, trod the very stones on which my feet now stood?… How and why had they broken the law, in what way were they enemies of Society… Child-burdened women who were left without money, without the means or opportunity or physical power to earn it, who had stolen in order to save their lives and that of their children. Women who from their childhood had been trained to physical shame’… if such women become ‘sodden by drink’, ‘undermined by drug taking…what hope is there of cure by imprisonment?’

Emmeline Pankhurst 1908  [ibid " Reforming Justice for Women: A Century of Struggle" Baroness Vivien Stern Probation Journal December 2009 vol. 56 no. 4 451-456.]


“… Finally, I continue to recommend a single focus for female offenders on the SPS Board.

The Need for a National Strategy to cope with Growing Female Prisoner Numbers

2.20 Notwithstanding the concerns I have about Cornton Vale and the very detrimental effects of overcrowding in that prison, there is an equally serious issue to be tackled in a coordinated manner: and that is the burgeoning number of women being sent to prison…………The infrastructure in Cornton Vale cannot adequately cope with the demands placed on it by high numbers and there is now a very real danger of doing more harm than good by sending women into an environment which no longer has the capacity to meet their complex needs.”

Brigadier Hugh Monro, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons 2011 [HM Inspectorate of Prisons HMP & YOI Cornton Vale, Follow-up Inspection 1-4 February 2011.]


To consider the evidence on how to improve outcomes for women in the criminal justice system; to make recommendations for practical measures in this Parliament to reduce their reoffending and reverse the recent increase in the female Prisoner population.


The number of women in custody has doubled over the past decade.Undoubtedly some women should be in prison to protect the public, however, many are vulnerable people, whose offending is a result of chaotic lifestyles, mental health difficulties and severe addiction problems. It is against this background, the Commission has been tasked to come up with practical recommendations to help to improve the outcomes for women in the criminal justice system, including reversing the recent increase in the female prison population. The remit is hugely challenging, but finding more effective ways of dealing with Scotland’s female offenders would deliver enormous benefits to those directly affected and more widely to society as a whole.”

The Rt Hon Dame Eilish Angiolini, Chair Commission on women offenders 2011.


The Commission on women offenders report was published on 17th April 2012 and makes recommendations under the following headings:

Service redesign

Alternatives to prosecution

Alternatives to remand



Community Reintegration

Making it work (leadership, structures and delivery)


SWGWO has published a joint action plan on women offenders with SCCCJ, you can view this here

SWGWO and SCCCJ submitted a response to the Angiolini report, you can view this here


SWGWO was established at the start of 2011 and comprises a group of organisations and individuals concerned with all issues surrounding women’s offending in Scotland. The group wishes to see true equality for all women across the criminal justice system, and to sharpen the focus of policy makers on those women with mental health and learning disabilities and those women from a background of sexual abuse, addiction and substance misuse, as well as support for their families. The group would ultimately like to see that these women and their families are supported to move away from the criminal justice system towards a healthier future.”

Scottish Working Group on Women’s Offending, August 2011.


Women in Prison – an unmet commitment

In 2006, Baroness Vivien Stern published a paper on women in prison entitled “Women in prison in Scotland: an unmet commitment”. This was followed by two events organised by SCCCJ to discuss this issue further.

An action plan was put forward in 2007:

Reducing the unnecessary use of imprisonment for women in Scotland – An action plan

The failure to keep women out of prison in spite of widespread political agreement that the number should be reduced can be attributed to:

  • The complex social and health needs of this group of women
  • The lack of specialisation in dealing with women in all the agencies
  • The absence in the main urban centres of one responsible person or unit to work to ensure that the mechanisms and services are in the right place to divert women from prosecution and custody.


We therefore recommend:

To Community Justice Authorities

  • All Community Justice Authorities should hold meetings on women offenders with all the relevant agencies to establish the level of unnecessary imprisonment and possible causes
  • All Community Justice Authorities should develop a mechanism with their constituent agencies to ensure there is a focal point for analysing all cases of imprisonment, responding to the imprisonment of women in their areas by increasing diversion where possible and encouraging development of specialist knowledge across relevant agencies
  • Health and addiction services for women should be brought in to the work of the focal point for dealing with women
  • The CJA should consider the provision of bail supervision and mentoring schemes to prevent unnecessary remands in custody and ensure appearances in court.
  • The CJA should negotiate with the health service to ensure court reports can be prepared without a remand to prison and that there is always a community psychiatric nurse in the custody court.
  • The CJA should negotiate with the health service an appropriate response for women who are acute self-harmers
  • The CJA should hold discussions with defence solicitors about the specific problems of women and the services available.
  • All CJAs should make an assessment of the potential for reduction and on that basis a national strategy should be developed and considered by the National Advisory Body.

To Criminal Justice Social Work Departments

  • Community sentences and programmes for women should be based on what is known about women’s desistance from crime and adapted to chaotic lifestyles and parental responsibilities to avoid unnecessary breaches.
  • Community sentences and programmes for women should start no longer than a week after sentencing.
  • Some staff should be trained to deal with the specific problems of women
  • A member of staff should have daily links with the custody court
  • Discussions should be held with the courts to initiate  more pro-active and flexible approaches to securing compliance with community-based supervision, approaches that can accommodate periods of relapse without recourse to custody.

To the Courts

  • The Judicial Studies Committee should provide training in dealing with women offenders
  • Courts should consider information on health status and caring responsibilities as part of the social enquiry report and, in the absence of significant risk of serious harm, should be required when sentencing to take into account the best interests of any child or other dependent of the defendant with a presumption towards community penalties when children’s or other dependents’ interests are involved
  • The court administration should consider clustering women’s cases on one day a week to assist with efficient use of specialist services and their staff.

To the Scottish Executive

  • A power should be introduced to enable prison governors to ask a court for an immediate review of a committal to prison of a person manifestly unsuitable to be imprisoned for health reasons
  • Risk assessment tools should be reviewed to produce tools appropriate to women

To the SPS

  • Cornton Vale and other prisons holding women should inform the appropriate Community Justice Authority criminal of all cases of women received into custody.

SCCCJ  30 Jan 07



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