Court screening & community alternatives to remand for women in Ayrshire

Profile: Kilmarnock Sheriff Court, court screening service for women

This week’s blog comes from Alice Dillon, Partnerships and Performance Officer, South West Scotland Community Justice Authority

Background

The Commission on Women Offenders, in their report published in 2012, expressed significant concern at the ever increasing number of women in Scotland being remanded and/or receiving a custodial sentence, and made a number of recommendations as regards change.

With this in mind, and recognising the high remand figures of women from Ayrshire, the Ayrshire Women’s Service submitted a bid to the Scottish Government in December 2013 to create a new service within Kilmarnock Sheriff Court aimed at providing immediate information and initial assessment for women appearing from police custody at that Court.  The service aimed to ‘screen’ every woman appearing from the Custody Court; providing the Sheriff with brief background information and, where possible, a proposed Bail Support Plan to offer Sheriffs a viable alternative to remanding a woman in custody.  A similar approach had been successfully implemented in Kilmarnock Sheriff Court for young people involved in the justice system, therefore we were able to draw from the lessons learned from that project.

The Scottish Government awarded funding to support the employment of one full time equivalent worker, initially for a 12 month period.  Staff were recruited from within the existing team, meaning that the service could benefit from the existing knowledge base of the workers.

Prior to the service being implemented it was critical to ensure the support of the Sheriffs, the Fiscal Service and the Faculty.  Other important stakeholders included Police Scotland, NHS Forensic Mental Health and Addiction Services, as well as HMP Greenock and HMPYOI Cornton Vale.

During the set up period, we worked with researchers from The Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (IRISS), who were evaluating the project on behalf of the Scottish Government, to develop a logic model for the service.  The logic model displays the sequence of actions that describe what the programme will do.  It details inputs (what we invest), outputs (what we do), and outcomes (what the results are).

Delivery

The service began providing Court Action notes (CANs) from 23.06.14, and data was supplied to IRISS to inform the National evaluation from then until 31.12.14.

During the period above, women appeared from custody on 288 occasions, with 229 Court Action Notes being completed.  The main reason for non-completion of the remaining 59 Court Action Notes was a lack of basic information provided to allow the note to be completed, particularly in cases of women who were from outwith the area or unknown to services.

A total of 183 women had Court Action notes written for them.  Of these women, 147 appeared from custody on one occasion, 27 on two, 6 appeared on three, and 3 women appeared on four occasions.

Outcome of Initial Court Appearance (where known)

  • Bail (132)
  • Custody (4)
  • Supervised Bail (11)
  • Remand (42)
  • PF Release (21)
  • Fine (9)
  • Admonished (4)
  • CPO (2)

Within the reporting period, 91 women were required to reappear at court.  On 82 occasions, reminder letters were sent to the women as part of the Court Screening Service.  Of the 91 women, 85 reappeared at court (93%).  We were not able to compare this data to previous years, as it was not available to us, but we are aware from women that they frequently forget what they are told in Court or by their solicitor at the time of their initial appearance due to high levels of stress at the time.  By sending a reminder letter to women prior to their next court date it was hoped that this would ultimately save money in terms of Court and Police time; and for the women, it should result in a reduction in remands.

Presenting Issues of Women Appearing

The majority of the women appearing from custody lived very chaotic lives, with a high percentage identifying issues related to substance use (n=138), emotional and mental health (n=62), family/social relationships (n=61), and engagement with services (n=74).

The Court Screening Service highlighted the level of need of women appearing from the Custody Court and it was recognised that some women felt that the only place they could get the help they needed was in prison.

Sheriffs also voiced concerns as regards the availability of services in the community for these very chaotic and vulnerable women, and anecdotally it appears that they sometimes felt that remanding these women in custody was the only option available to them.

Lessons Learned

There were many lessons learned from both the set up and delivery of the Court Screening Service.  In relation to setting up the project, we found that it was imperative to invest time to get ‘buy in’ from key stakeholders and partners, as without this the project would not have got off the ground.  In relation to delivery of the project, we learned that it is important to have viable, immediate, options for Sheriffs to choose from.

After a positive evaluation, the Court Screening Service received funding for a further year in order to build upon the lessons learned.  It has subsequently been funded from within existing local budgets to continue to provide Sheriffs with information to allow them to make a more considered decision at the initial Court appearance, whilst importantly, we continue to develop the service in a bid to plug gaps in provision, and work with partner agencies to ensure that vulnerable women receive the help they need, at a time that they are ready to receive it.