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Why has number of women in Scottish prisons increased?

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Research published today by the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research demonstrates an increasing tendency for Scottish courts to impose custodial sentences on women.

Exploring the reasons for a significant increase in the female prison population in Scotland in the past ten years, researchers Professor Gill McIvor (University of Stirling) and Professor Michele Burman (University of Glasgow) found that:

• The average daily female prison population in Scotland almost doubled between 1999-2000 and 2008-2009, from 210 to 413.

• Overall, women are being imprisoned for longer periods of time. The average length of custodial sentences imposed on women has increased from 228 days in 1999-2000 to 271 in 2008-2009. While sentences of three months have decreased sharply, there has been a large increase in sentences of between 6 months and two years.

• Imprisonment rates differ depending on the age of women. There has been a reduction in the use of imprisonment for women under 21 while the proportionate increase in imprisonment has been greatest among women over 30.

• There is no evidence of increasing participation of women in crime. Data from five police forces in Scotland showed that the number of recorded crimes involving women has remained relatively stable, with some fluctuations in Strathclyde and Fife.

• There is no evidence from the police data that the seriousness of women’s crime has increased. There were some changes in the pattern of offences attributable to women, with increases in minor assaults and breaches of the peace; and decreases in property crimes and motoring offences. If anything, it appears from the police data that an increasing proportion of female crime is attributable to women’s involvement in relatively minor offences.

• There is no evidence of an increase in the number of women prosecuted. Data provided by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service showed a decrease in the number and proportion of women whose cases were marked for court since 2002 onwards. This downward trend has coincided with a steady increase in the use of financial penalties since 2004.

The researchers’ principal conclusions are:

• It appears that the growth in female imprisonment is primarily a result of sentencers’ increasing tendency to impose custodial sentences for specific categories of crime.

• Courts are becoming increasingly punitive in their response to crimes against public justice, regardless of the age of the offender. There is little evidence that the courts are becoming more punitive towards young women (under 21), but clear evidence that the sentencing of older women is becoming increasingly punitive across a wider range of offences.

• In particular, courts have become less likely to imprison women under 21 who are convicted of property offences but more likely to imprison those convicted of crimes against public justice. Among women aged 21 and older, the courts have become more likely to impose custodial sentences for crimes against public justice, drug crimes and public order offences (common assaults and breaches of the peace). In addition, custodial sentences are increasingly likely to be imposed upon women over 30 who have been convicted of shoplifting and other theft.

Overall, this research indicates that the growth in the female prison population is more likely attributed to the increasing use of custodial sentences by courts than changes in the pattern of female offending. However, the reason for the harsher sentences for women is not immediately obvious.

Professor Gill McIvor says: “The growth in female imprisonment in Scotland cannot be disputed. There is, however, no evidence that it has occurred because more women are entering the criminal justice system or being convicted of more serious crimes. Given that most female offending does not involve serious offences, the dramatic increase in the use of custodial remands and sentences for women is a significant concern.”

Further information:
Lesley Wilkinson/Andy Mitchell
Head of Communications & Media (job-share), University of Stirling
Tel: 01786 467058

Note to Editors:

The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (SCCJR) is an academic research consortium based on a partnership between Glasgow, Stirling, Edinburgh and Glasgow Caledonian Universities. SCCJR was launched in June 2007 and has quickly emerged as one of the UK’s strongest and most high profile crime and justice research centres, producing high quality research which is both scholarly and of relevance to the needs of those involved in criminal justice policy and practice.

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