National Committee member Maggie Mellon recently spoke about our justice campaign at the Scottish Parliament. Read the text of her speech and find out what Women for Independence are campaigning for. (Photo shows Maggie hosting session on justice at our 2015 AGM).
Women for Independence campaigned against the building of the large new superprison that was proposed. It was not the only voice, but it has been recognised as a game-changing voice because we took the debate out of the usual channels and addressed a new and much broader audience, women who had been engaged by the referendum debate and were asking questions about the kind of Scotland we want to live in.
I must pay tribute to the Howard League and the Scottish working group on women offenders and others who had produced the arguments – but Government was not listening.
There was a change of Minister – which definitely helped. Maybe the first minister had been listening to a range of concerns about justice, including the women’s prison issue. New minister Michael Matheson arrived just as a signature was demanded on the contract. He did not sign.
The issue is now a main campaigning issue for WFI and has been discussed by WFI groups all round the country. At our first AGM, 500 women from across Scotland heard from a young woman who had been in prison for over 3 years for different sentences from the age of 17.
The AGM backed the campaign and added a whole new dimension to it. WFI has over fifty affiliated groups – so the issues have been discussed across Scotland and there is a lot more awareness of the dreadful injustices done to women here.
Our campaign has the following aims;
- That Scotland should have the most progressive criminal justice system in Europe by 2020.
- To achieve social and economic justice for women through campaigning, informing, and lobbying for change
Why is it necessary to campaign? Have we not got the most progressive government in the UK? Are our MPS not down in London sticking it to the Tories?
There have been broken promises on women and prison here for over 17 years now. And Scotland’s rate of imprisonment of women is, at 7.1 per 100,000 women, higher even than England and Wales, which imprison 6.8 per 100,000. These British rates are more than twice that of Sweden, with 3.4 per 100,00. Ireland, with a very similar population and size imprisons only 2.7 women per 100,000.
- 80% of women sent to prison are on short sentences of less than 6 months
- One third of women in prison are on remand awaiting trial, mostly for offences which result in only a short prison sentence and often in no prison sentence at all.
You can see from these facts alone that women end up in prison for minor offences.
Women in prison are not offenders who happen also to have complex social histories of abuse, trauma and mental health and addiction problems. The criminal justice system is what we inflict on mainly poor girls and women who have suffered abuse and trauma and who are failed day and daily by the health and other services that should be helping them.
The impact of unnecessary imprisonment on women is enormous, to them personally, to their children and families and to their communities.
We have six clear proposals for creating a better system of justice;
- By 2020 the number of women in prison in Scotland should be reduced to below 100 as a result of reform of our criminal justice system.
- Take prison off the menu for summary courts. There should be no short sentences for women - or men.
- Impact Assessments. There should be child, family and community impact assessments for any women facing a prison sentence.
- No woman should be remanded or sentenced to custody because of the lack of better disposal or of the failure of health or social provision to meet her need for social, housing or health care, including drug and alcohol treatment and supported accommodation.
- 24/7 Arrest Referral to women’s support services should be made available in every locality in order to introduce effective prevention and where possible to divert women from prosecution and further offending.
- Women’s Justice Panels should be established in every locality to make decisions and to require or commission community support and supervision services and any measures that promote justice, and are holistic, respectful of human dignity, and in the interests of the community, and society, including any victims of the crime committed
So, The aim of our campaigning is to help inform and shift public opinion towards a better and more enlightened justice system for women and for society. We believe that civic society needs to have much greater knowledge of what is done in our name by the courts, and the costs and consequences of this.
We are launching a women’s “Justice Watch” across Scotland. The plan is for women across Scotland to visit and sit in on cases in the courts , and report on what is happening – we had a successful planning day in early September to work out how best to do this, and hope to start in early 2016.
Secondly, we aim to convince the public of the economic sense of change - and show how prosecuting minor shoplifting or benefit offences costs thousands of pounds that could be much better used tackling the causes rather than the consequences of crime.”
Thirdly, we aim to secure cross party support for our proposals.
Women For Independence Justice for Women group aim to increase awareness and understanding of the criminal justice service, and to explore issues and concerns around women. We believe that women are often treated differently within the system and, if they are imprisoned, it has an exponential negative impact on them, their families and their future opportunities.
Justice Watch will engage local Women For Independence groups around the country for at least one year, to find out how justice in the local courts operates, to see in practice how the courts deal with women, and to bring about change within the system.
Justice Watch aims to make the justice system more progressive, responsive and fit for purpose for women and their families and to make the courts more accountable in relation to their sentences and practices as they affect women.
It will be carried out as part of the overall aim of educating ourselves and the wider audience of women as to what goes on in our courts in our name. It will provide a woman’s perspective on judges and the judicial system, and the extent to which it provides justice for women.
Justice Watch will contribute to creating an informed and involved public debate on justice, crime and punishment.
Justice Watch is recruiting a team of Women for Independence members and supporters from across the local groups to attend Sheriff Courts across Scotland, on a regular and timetabled basis, for the minimum of one year to act as courtroom monitors tracking the treatment of accused women and what, if any, sentences are imposed against them.
Volunteer Justice Watchers will be briefed in what to expect in court and on what we are monitoring and why, and given a template to collect and report evidence. We will not hide what we do but will let courts know when we are present and that we are conducting this public monitoring
Information will be gathered and disseminated.
Through regular reports and briefings, we will inform our membership, the media, the judiciary, and the Government and Parliament.
As well as recording evidence of how women are treated in the court system, we will also be looking at what assessments of a woman’s position is taken into account when sentencing is passed and whether community or other remands and disposals are considered (as opposed to custodial) and if the role of Court Social Work has any bearing on how women are dealt with by sheriffs.
Economy Watch is the second aspect of our campaigning strategy. We plan to take sample cases and disposals in courts across the country that we come across through Justice Watch, and to cost the entire process from arrest to sentence. So for instance we would cost the prosecution of a £7 theft, or for breach of the peace, or failure to pay a fine, or for common assault as follows;
- Police time for arrest and charge, papers to PF
- Prosecutor Fiscals costs in determining and processing prosecution
- Court costs
- Sheriffs Costs
- Legal Aid costs
- Prosecuting solicitor/advocate costs
- Police witness costs
- Sentence costs
These costs – which are very significant and will amount to many thousands of pounds per case - will be added to our Justice Watch reports and used to influence public opinion in favour of our and other enlightened proposals.
CROSS PARTY SUPPORT
We aim to use the information gathered from Justice watch and Economy watch to gain traction in the media and in public opinion, in order to influence all the political parties. We need them to agree a consensual cross party approach to cutting the number of women in prison and towards a far more progressive justice system.
We have already supported Jean Urquhart MSP, who has hosted two cross party meetings in the Parliament and also a very successful roundtable which heard from women who had suffered from criminal injustice on a level pegging with senior sheriffs, politicians and police.
We have yet to develop a fuller strategy, but it will involve lobbying all the parties, the justice and other spokespersons, the Justice Committees, and the government, in order to push for cross party agreement.
So an enormous programme with huge ambitions.
Anybody wants to help – please see me!
(If you want to contact Maggie to offer your help with the Justice Watch Campaign, e-mail us on Info@womenforindependence.org and we'll make sure she gets your message.)