Student essay competition winning entry

Late last year we announced the winners of our student essay competition held for students across Scotland’s universities and colleges. We were delighted with the interest shown and support we received from colleagues across the education sector who helped spread the word across campuses.

Now that the winners have been notified and have received their prizes, we now have the honour of publishing their winning entries.

1st prize went to Hannah Forrest, a fourth year Bachelor of Laws with English Law (Hons) Student at the University of Aberdeen.

‘Are there more effective ways than prison to reduce reoffending among women in Scotland?’ Discuss


In recent years, the female prison population has been rising. “In Scotland, reflecting trends evidenced elsewhere, the average daily female prison population almost doubled between 1999-2000 and 2008-2009, from 210 to 413.”[1] Malloch and McIvor describe this as an ‘alarming increase’[2] and accordingly, women’s imprisonment has been a crucial focus for ‘criminal justice policy and practice in Scotland in recent years.’[3] This significant rise in the female prison population has caused considerable academic commentary and debate about the effectiveness of prison as a means of punishment for female offenders. The arguments raised in key articles and the recurring themes in reviews and reports on women’s imprisonment will be referred to, to explore whether the current prison system for women is effective or whether reform and alternative measures are needed to punish and rehabilitate female offenders and reduce the crime rate among women. The reasons why women’s prisons should be reformed will be discussed which will involve an analysis of some of the problems inherent in the current penal system for women.

The complex backgrounds of female offenders

A popular explanation as to why some women commit crimes is the fact that ‘Female prisoners have higher lifetime incidences of trauma, including severe and repeated physical and sexual victimisation, than either male prisoners or women in the general population’.[4] The Commission reported of hearing ‘evidence of an emerging link between a woman’s experience of victimisation and subsequent offending’.[5] Therefore, it is evident that there can be very difficult personal circumstances that can lead a woman into criminal activity and that a number of female offenders are vulnerable. Malloch and McIvor argue that these ‘potentially contributory factors… need to be taken into account in the design and provision of community penalties as applied to women.’[6] Therefore, trauma and victimisation need to be considered when sentencing an offender as often alternatives to prison will better rehabilitate the offender.

[1] Margaret Malloch and Gill McIvor, ‘Women and community sentences’ (2011) Criminology & Criminal Justice 11(4) 325,Page 326.

[2] (n 1).

[3] Michele Burman & Susan A Batchelor, ‘Between two stools? Responding to young women who offend’ (2009) 9(3) Youth Justice 270,Page 277.

[4] The Scottish Government, Commission on women offenders: final report (2012): accessed 25th October 2016.

[5] (n4).

[6] (n 1)Page 327.

The Ministry of Justice highlights the importance of meeting individual female offender’s complex needs stating that, ‘there will be cultural, social and other issues pertinent to the individual woman’s situation. Practitioners will thus need to tailor their help to her individual needs and circumstances.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution.’[1]  Therefore, it is clearly necessary to address individual offender’s issues in order to offer effective rehabilitation and prevent reoffending.  Offenders may also be less responsive to support and intervention if they feel they are only being viewed as an offender and not as an individual whose unique life experiences have led them to committing a crime. Burman and Batchelor do acknowledge that there has been some progress in offering female offenders more tailored support. They state that, ‘Efforts at developing age- and gender specific interventions in the community are being spearheaded by social workers.’[2]  It will be argued that greater social work involvement with female offenders is the best means by which to rehabilitate offenders in the community.

Mental health problems

‘In 2007, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) reported[3] that 80 per cent of the women in Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Cornton Vale had mental health problems’[4] Furthermore, there was several suicides at Cornton Vale and high rates of self-harm. Such a high prevalence of mental health issues among female prisoners suggests there is a significant need for better mental health support both in prison and upon leaving prison. Therefore, those that work with female offenders should have regular mental health training so that they can offer greater support to the offenders they work with. The Commission recommends that ‘Mental health programmes and interventions for short-term prisoners are designed so that they can continue to be delivered in a seamless way in the community.’[5] This recommendation should be implemented so that offenders can continue to access the mental health support out of prison which is critical to their rehabilitation.

It is also widely acknowledged that female prisoners have lower ‘self-esteem than their male counterparts’[6] and so an emphasis on raising female offender’s confidence could have a positive impact on the behaviour and lifestyles of these offenders who are often vulnerable and dependent on drugs or violent partners.

[1] Ministry of Justice, NOMS Women and Equalities Group, ‘A Distinct Approach:  A guide to working with women offenders’ (2012) <> accessed 2nd November 2016.

[2] (n 3)Page 281.

[3] The Scottish Executive, HM Inspectorate of Prisons HMP & YOI Cornton Vale (2007).

[4] (n 4)Page 20, Para 28.

[5] (n 4).

[6] (n 1)Page 330.

Raising the confidence of offenders could empower them to make positive changes to their lives and turn their backs on criminal activity.

There is also research to suggest that relationships are crucial to the mental health of women. Kelly Hannah-Moffat discusses relational theory which stresses the importance of relationships that are “fundamental to women’s sense of identity and self-worth.”[1] Therefore, regard must be paid to the importance of offenders maintaining relationships that are vital to their self-esteem and hence their rehabilitation.

The effect of a woman’s imprisonment on family life

As women tend to be the primary caregivers of children, one should consider the effects of imprisonment on dependent children of offenders. The Scottish Government reported that ‘Approximately 30 per cent of children with imprisoned parents will develop physical and mental health problems, and there is a higher risk of these children also ending up in prison.’[2] This is a very troubling statistic that demonstrates the severe impact imprisonment can have on the children of offenders. It is therefore arguable that where alternatives to prison are available they should be fully utilised to prevent causing unnecessary harm to a family.

However, the HM Chief Inspectorate for Prisons in Scotland is aware of the strain that prison can place on family life and stated in the 2015-16 Annual Report that:

‘There are plans to replace the current buildings at Cornton Vale with a new national facility on the same site and the creation of five Community Custody Units across the country. These should enable women to be located nearer to their communities and to maintain closer contact with their families.’[3]

Such recognition of the significance of family relationships is encouraging and imprisoning women nearer their communities is important as it means that family visits will be easier to facilitate. Furthermore, the opportunity to maintain relationships with family members will be increased and this is therefore a reform this author is in favour of.

Alternatives to Prison

Malloch and McIvor describe the Scottish Criminal Justice System as having a range of ‘innovative alternatives to custody. However they do not appear to be used to their full potential for women.’[1]

[1] Kelly Hannah-Moffat, ‘Sacrosanct or Flawed: Risk, Accountability and Gender-Responsive Penal Politics’ (2010-2011) 22(2) Current Issues in Criminal Justice 193, 197.

[2] (n 4)Page 3.

[3] HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Annual Report 2015-16 (2016) <> accessed 2nd November 2016.

The limited use of these alternatives is greatly unfortunate since there are several benefits that arise from community penalties. For instance, ‘Research has consistently shown that community penalties are more effective than short prison sentences in reducing offending, and that they can play an important role in addressing some of the individual and social harms associated with crime.’[2] Therefore, one would suggest that community penalties should be used more frequently as they can help offenders to acknowledge their offending behaviour and ‘they offer greater scope for ‘payback’ to the community, allow offenders to maintain important links to employment, family and community, and mean that resources within prisons can be concentrated on meaningful rehabilitative work with serious offenders.’[3] Therefore, community payback is arguably a more effective form of punishment in that it requires the offender to face up to the harm they have caused and right their wrong. Greater use of community penalties could help prevent overcrowding in women’s prisons despite the rise in female offending. Reserving prison for only those that have committed serious crimes and those that pose a risk to the public would mean that offenders could receive better quality rehabilitation since resources would not be so stretched.

The Problems associated with Remand and Criminal Justice Social Work Reports (CJSWR)

‘Remand is the imprisonment of people prior to trial or after they have been convicted but are waiting to be sentenced.’[4] It appears contradictory to the presumption of innocence to place someone on remand before trial as they are being imprisoned even though they have not been proven guilty and one would argue that this is a major barrier to fairness. There are a number of serious problems associated with remand including being exposed to ‘the same increased risk of suicide and mental distress, disintegration of social supports and family ties, and disruption to employment as prisoners serving short sentences.’[5] Furthermore, remand is a particularly problematic issue among women offenders as ‘for every woman going to prison to serve a criminal sentence, two women go to prison on remand.’[6]

[1] (n 1)Page 327.

[2] Simon Anderson & Others, Evaluation of community payback orders, criminal justice social work reports and the presumption against short sentences (Scottish Government Social Research 2015) <>accessed 4th November 2016.Page 13, Para 1.1.

[3] (n 21) Page 14, Para 1.6.

[4] Sarah Armstrong, ‘Fixing Scotland’s Remand Problem’ in Prisons and Sentencing Reform: Developing Policy in Scotland (The Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research 2009) Page 10.

[5] (n 4)Page 18, Para 20.

[6] Claire Lightowler & Darragh Hare, Prisons and Sentencing Reform: Developing Policy in Scotland (The Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research 2009) Page 4.

The reason many women are on remand is to allow for the production of a Criminal Justice Social Work Report (CJSWR) which can be difficult to complete where the woman is not on remand ‘due to the chaotic lifestyle of the offender.’[1]  However, it is still inappropriate to place women on remand if they are ultimately not likely to be handed a custodial sentence. Therefore, it is the opinion of this author, that the commission’s recommendation that a Rapid Report should be available in summary criminal courts,[2] should be implemented. Overall, any reports required by the court should be simplified to allow the report to be completed quicker and to avoid the need for a female offender to be imprisoned for the report to be completed. A less complex report seems appropriate given that Sheriffs the Commission spoke with expressed the view that ‘although they value the information provided in these reports, in some cases where it is likely that a community-based order is appropriate, information provided in a briefer format would suffice.’[3]

The Presumption Against Short Sentences (PASS)

The presumption against short periods of imprisonment is contained within section 17 of the Criminal Justice and Licencing (Scotland) Act 2010 and it places ‘a legislative onus on sentencers to avoid the use of short prison sentences (of less than three months) in all but exceptional cases and, in the latter, to record formally the reasons for such a disposal.’[4] This was a reform introduced by the Scottish Government in 2011 that this report praises. Short prison sentences are not fit for purpose as evidenced by the fact that the Commission found that ‘Short prison sentences are not effective at reducing reoffending in women. The statistics show that 70 per cent of women offenders who received a prison sentence of three months or less are reconvicted of an offence within two years.’[5]  Furthermore, when an offender receives a short sentence, ‘there is limited scope to undertake effective rehabilitative work’.[6] There are also strong financial reasons for not imposing short sentences. The Commission found that ‘The average cost of a community payback order is around £2,400… which is approximately half of the cost of a three-month prison sentence.’[7] Furthermore, prison sentences are arguably unnecessary for most female offenders since ‘Most have committed relatively minor offences, and most pose little risk to the communities in which they live.’[8]

[1] (n 4)Page 55, Para 180.

[2] (n 4)Page 56, Para 183.

[3] (n 4)Page 55, Para 181.

[4] (n 17)Page 1.

[5] (n 4)Page 20, Para 34.

[6] (n 17)Page 14.

[7] (n 4)Page 3.

[8] (n 3)Page 280.

However, it has been reported that the presumption ‘has had limited impact on sentencing decisions’[1] and therefore there has been ongoing discussion regarding the possibility of extending the presumption. ‘75 per cent of custodial sentences imposed on women are for periods of six months or less.’[2] Therefore, if the presumption against short sentences was increased to at least 6 months, there could be a significant decrease in the total female prison population which would help to combat overcrowding in female prisons. However, such a move could also result in some female offenders receiving longer sentences since Sheriffs would be discouraged from handing out sentences of less than six months.

Social Workers

Malloch and McIvor highlighted that ‘Women often felt they were not listened to. Particularly in the court setting’.[3] This emphasises that there is a need for female offenders to have a social worker to help them through the court process and provide a ‘sympathetic ear’.[4] Malloch and McIvor stressed the benefits of the supervisory relationship which ‘were usually said to be characterized by openness, trust and a degree of reciprocity and women often reported receiving valued practical assistance from them.’[5] The importance of this trusting relationship should not be underestimated within the context of female offenders since many women described their personal relationships as ‘abusive and/or controlling’.[6] It is fundamental that female offenders feel that they have a professional who wants to help them as otherwise they are likely to feel isolated. A stable and supportive contact in an otherwise chaotic lifestyle can be reassuring and important for women offenders. Furthermore, interviews conducted with social workers and offenders suggested that ‘an explicit focus on offending was likely to be less helpful; addressing the structural circumstances within which the offending had occurred was seen to be a necessity for change’.[7] This reiterates the importance of acknowledging the difficult personal circumstances that have led the offender to crime. Where there is adequate support available to the female offender she is given increased opportunity to address the issues that have led her to commit crime and more chances to explore alternative courses of action that can help her avoid resorting to criminal behaviour in the future. Therefore, specialist centres should make assistance from social workers more readily available so that offenders have adequate support and guidance to change their criminal behaviour and so they are better prepared to deal with the issues they are likely to face upon release.

[1] Scottish Government (2015) ‘Consultation on Proposals to Strengthen the Presumption against Short Periods of Imprisonment’Page 1.

[2] (n 4)Page 19, para 22.

[3] (n 1)Page 336.

[4] (n 1)Page 334.

[5] (n 1)Page 334.

[6] (n 1)Page 334.

[7] (n 1)Page 332.


Specialist Centres

Following on from recommendations of The Inter-Agency Forum, in August 2003, The ‘Time Out’ Centre, or 218, was established ‘to provide residential and non-residential support services for women.’[1] Furthermore, ‘One of the unique features of 218 is the presence of staff from outside agencies located in-house. These include a Health Team leader, responsible for co-ordinating health services in 218.’[2] Female Offender’s having access to multiple services at one location is very useful and this would suggest that the time spent at such a centre can be productive in that many issues can be addressed whilst at the centre. The Commission praised such specialist centres[3] and Malloch and McIvor state that, ‘Where provisions have been developed specifically for women (i.e. the 218 Centre in Glasgow) there appears to be more opportunity for responding to women’s needs and addressing the underlying causes of offending behaviour.’[4] Therefore, continued investment into such centres would be recommended as a crucial focus of reform.


Although the criminal justice system has taken positive steps to address female offending, further reform of female prison’s and punishment is needed. The recommendations of this report would be for women’s prisons to be more social work based so that female offenders have increased opportunity to address the circumstances that have led them to crime. Acknowledgement of the factors that lead female offenders to crime can allow for more relevant and effective rehabilitation to be delivered. It is recommended that remand and short sentences are used less frequently, to prevent overcrowding in female prisons and to ensure that the women who do require a period of imprisonment are given better access to all the help and resources they need. Furthermore, less use of remand and short sentences combined with an increase in the use of community penalties can ensure that less damage is done to family relationships which often suffer when women are imprisoned.

[1] Nancy Loucks and others, Evaluation of the 218 Centre, Crime and Criminal Justice Social Research, Scottish Executive Justice Department 2006. <> accessed 7th November 2016. Page 1.

[2] (n 37)Page 17, Para 3.3.

[3] (n 4)Page 4.

[4] (n 1)Page 328.

Table of legislation

Criminal Justice and Licencing (Scotland) Act 2010


Armstrong S, ‘Fixing Scotland’s Remand Problem’ in Prisons and Sentencing Reform: Developing Policy in Scotland (2009) The Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research

Burman M & Batchelor S, ‘Between two stools? Responding to young women who offend’ (2009) 9(3) Youth Justice 270

Hannah-Moffat K, ‘Sacrosanct or Flawed: Risk, Accountability and Gender-Responsive Penal Politics’ (2010-2011) 22(2) Current Issues in Criminal Justice 193

Lightowler C & Hare D, ‘Prisons and Sentencing Reform: Developing Policy in Scotland’ (2009) The Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research

Malloch M & McIvor G, ‘Women and community sentences’ (2011) Criminology & Criminal Justice 11(4) 325-344

HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Annual Report 2015-16 (2016) <> accessed 2nd November 2016.

Ministry of Justice, NOMS Women and Equalities Group, A Distinct Approach:  A guide to working with women offenders (2012) <> accessed 2nd November 2016

Nancy Loucks and others, Evaluation of the 218 Centre, Crime and Criminal Justice Social Research, Scottish Executive Justice Department 2006 <> accessed 7th November 2016.

Simon Anderson & Others, Evaluation of community payback orders, criminal justice social work reports and the presumption against short sentences (Scottish Government Social Research 2015) <> accessed 4th November 2016.

The Scottish Government, Commission on women offenders: final report (2012): <> accessed 25th October 2016

Scottish Prison Service, Female Offenders 2013 14th Survey Bulletin (2013)

The Scottish Executive, HM Inspectorate of Prisons HMP & YOI Cornton Vale (2007).

Scottish Government, Consultation on Proposals to Strengthen the Presumption against Short Periods of Imprisonment (2015).