Can we create a genuinely equivalent community justice model for women?

This week’s guest post comes from Justina Murray, South West Scotland Community Justice Authority

In November 2013, I shared a platform with Tom Jackson from Glasgow CJA at the first Holyrood ‘female offenders’ conference (more on terminology below). We outlined a vision of four actions for a confident nation to take if we were to be truly ambitious and seize the opportunity to build on the vision, intent and aspiration of the Commission on Women Offenders (the Angiolini Commission) and other developments at the time. We called for a cap on female prisoner numbers (at 100 women), to be introduced over 3 years; for Getting It Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) arrangements to include justice partners; for sheriffs to be supported to get out into the community to really get to know services providing a credible alternative to custody; and to change the language we use in relation to ‘offenders’.

Two and a half years later we were invited back (I know! Amazing!) to reflect on progress since Angiolini, as her Commission’s report reached its fourth anniversary. At that event, we reflected that – reassuringly – some good progress had been made against these original four actions. The Scottish Government has transformed its language to the point that you would struggle to find the word ‘offender’ in the new national community justice policy framework. The Criminal Justice Act 2016 includes the requirement for children of prisoners to be identified and linked into GIRFEC named person arrangements as appropriate. The proposed changes to the women’s prison estate will indeed create a single national women’s prison for around 80 women (albeit provision for a further 100 women will be developed via five proposed Community Custodial Units and existing provision for 200 women at HMPs Edinburgh, Grampian and Greenock will be retained for the immediate future). And we are all working harder to develop and sustain a range of community-based alternatives to remand and custody for women, and to make sure our sheriffs are more aware of what is available.

So far, so good as they say.

However we know we are not yet at the point of having a genuinely equivalent community justice model for women – that is, equivalent to the scale of investment and the scale of political drive which is currently focused on providing and reshaping the custodial model for women. So we have identified four more steps we need to take to get to that point.

First, we need to move to a truly preventative justice system, with ‘preventative thinking’ clearly evidenced at every stage, from first contact with the police to resettlement from custody. This preventative thinking does not just apply to keeping people out of offending in the first place, but by applying a ‘presumption against escalation’ at all times. This is a tried and tested approach which has already delivered such impressive results within the Whole System Approach for Young People.

Second, we are seeking a convincing model of justice reinvestment. With crime rates at a 41 year low, this sounds quite easy at a high level, assuming funding is all sitting in one large pot and can be freed up and reinvested in community alternatives to custody. We know however that reality is altogether more complicated, with most money tied up in people and buildings, and a justice system which is facing an increase in complex and resource-heavy demands such as historic sex abuse cases, forensically complex new crimes like stalking, and an ageing prisoner population with increasingly complex care needs. And of course budgets are managed at a micro level by individual managers who naturally like to hold on to what they have rather than re-gifting it to someone else’s grand plan for prevention. We are however seeing some positive – albeit early – movement on this (for more on this, read Tom’s blog on commissioning for better justice).

Third, we need to see communities as really at the heart of community justice. We need to take the time just to have a conversation with people about their views and experiences of offending, re-offending and resettlement, and to challenge and change those public attitudes which can make it so hard for anyone with that ‘offender’ label to ever move on with their lives. The new community justice arrangements at least have the potential for this better community engagement, with a new ‘home’ for community justice within local community planning arrangements, which themselves have a renewed focus on local neighbourhoods and empowerment. (For more on this theme of Community and Justice see the June 2016 edition of Scottish Justice Matters).

Fourth and finally, it’s all about leadership at both local and national levels. We want to see strong and inspirational leadership across the justice sector, a demonstration of mutual commitment to a better way of working together, sharing resources, and integrating and sustaining a new way of working.

Together these four (hopefully not very lofty) ambitions of prevention, reinvestment, community and leadership will create a robust and sustainable model to deliver a strong and effective model of community justice for women in Scotland.

(This blog was adapted from a presentation by Tom Jackson and Justina Murray to the Holyrood conference on women in the justice system, May 2016)