Scotland’s criminal justice system needs a radical reworking if the number of women offenders is to be reduced, according to the Commission on Women Offenders.

The independent Commission, chaired by Dame Elish Angiolini QC, revealed their recommendations today after an eight month review.

The number of women offenders in Scotland has doubled in the last decade.

Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill announced the creation of the independent Commission in June last year to look at ways to stem the rise and reduce reoffending. The Commission met for the first time on 24 August 2011.

Publishing their report today, the Commission made 37 key recommendations including:

Creating local multi-disciplinary Community Justice Centres to enable women offenders to access a consistent range of services and programmes including mental health support to reduce reoffending.

Establishing a national Community Justice Service to commission, provide and manage adult offender services in the community

Setting up a national Community Justice and Prison Delivery Board to lead and support better collaboration between the Community Justice Service and the Scottish Prison Service

Demolishing HMP Cornton Vale and replacing it with a smaller specialist prison for long term and high risk prisoners and regional units to hold short-term and remand prisoners

Giving police new powers to issue conditional cautions directing women offenders to attend local Community Justice Centres

Providing additional powers for Procurators Fiscal to impose composite diversion orders which combine unpaid work and a rehabilitative programme as an alternative to prosecution

Giving new powers to judges to impose combined custodial /community sentences and suspended sentences

Establishing a problem solving court and providing opportunities for enhanced training for judges

Dame Elish Angiolini QC said:  “We no longer can ignore the significant cost to society of locking up women, the majority of whom have committed offences while suffering from addiction, trauma or mental health problems.

“In my 28 years as a prosecutor, I saw at first hand the tragic impact of women offending and re-offending on their victims, the local community, their families and themselves. Undoubtedly, some women must be in prison to protect the public and to mark the seriousness of their crime. But for women who are repeatedly committing lower level offences, we need to get better at tackling the root cause of their problems in the community, and allowing the community to benefit from the punishments imposed.

“We recognise the tough economic climate, significant financial constraints and increasing demands on services, therefore our recommendations are designed to be largely achieved through reconfiguration of existing funding, rather than significant new investment.

“This report focuses on practical measures that can be commenced during this Parliament to reduce reoffending, reverse the increase in the female prisoner population and ultimately, and most importantly, keep the public safe from crime.”

Commission members Dame Elish Angiolini QC, Dr Linda de Caestecker, Director of Public Health at NHS Greater Glasgow Health Board and Sheriff Daniel Scullion met with a wide range of stakeholders and groups including criminal justice social work, prison, the judiciary, police, victims representatives as well as focus groups with victims and ex-offenders. Evidence was also heard from practitioners in England, Northern Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Their recommendations have now been presented to Kenny MacAskill, Cabinet Secretary for Justice.

Victim support groups, those working with women offenders and the Scottish Prison Service have welcomed the report.

Brigadier Hugh Monro, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said:  “The work of the Commission on Women Offenders is both thoughtful and profound.  Women offenders can so often be victims as well and it is heartening to see such a radical approach being taken, across the criminal justice system, to deal with the issues surrounding female offending.

“For my part I am delighted to see such positive recommendations to improve the treatment and conditions of women prisoners.  Now, at last, I feel hopeful that conditions for female prisoners can be improved and I urge speedy and determined implementation of the Commission’s recommendations.”

Martin Cawley, Chief Executive at Turning Point Scotland, whose 218 service is highlighted as a role model for dealing with offenders in the community, said:  “We are very pleased to support the work of the Commission to look at more effective ways to address issues around female offending.

“218 is designed to break the cycle of offending which results in the ‘revolving door’ syndrome that characterises many female offenders relationships with prison, by addressing the cause of their offending behaviour.

“By offering support for addiction, mental or physical health issues, and family trauma, we believe it is a more effective route out of reoffending than a short term custodial sentence.

“This type of intervention works best when agencies from health, social work, criminal justice and police work in partnership with the charitable and voluntary sector.

“We firmly believe that communities across the country could benefit hugely if programmes like 218 were made available to them and this type of joint working can lead to a safe Scotland.”