Engage: Better alternatives to jail for young women says charity chief

The head of one of the country’s leading youth support charity’s has backed calls to keep more offending young women out of jail.

The issue was raised recently by Karyn McCluskey, head of Community Justice Scotland, who said most young women offenders would be better off being cared for outside prison, but there were not enough options for keeping them out of jail.

Now chief executive of Includem, Martin Dorchester has joined the growing number of voices calling for more alternatives to incarceration.

“We are one of very few organisation working with young offenders and our model is tried and tested in reversing harmful behaviours,” said Martin.

“But there are still too many young people ending up in secure units and young offenders institutions when there are better options available.”

Mr Dorchester (pictured) was speaking at the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice Conference at the University of Stirling.

“We need to challenge the underlying causes of offending, if we are to stop reoffending. It is widely evidenced that this is not something that jail time can achieve.”

Mr Dorchester gave an example of how the Includem approach had turned one young woman, Leah’s, life around.

“Leah was referred to us due to persistent offending relating to alcohol abuse. She had been evicted from her flat and while able to articulate her hopes for the future, she was not engaging with any support service and felt stuck in her current cycle of criminality.

“Leah could not recognise that her alcohol misuse was a barrier to fulfilling her potential. Through intensive work with her we managed to change her harmful behaviour and she is now in her own home again, has completed a training course in her chosen career, and is about to start college.”

Includem works with around 350 young people across the country experiencing challenges dealing with day to day living. It offers tailored, intensive support to build confidence and social skills to help them progress towards better lives.

‘The young women referred to us do not need prison, they need help, and I know there are still far too many in the prison system who are not getting the support they need.”

Of the 381 women currently in prison about 91% are serving sentences of less than a year. But later this year the Scottish Government is to consider scrapping prison sentences of 12 months or less.

“Subject to Parliamentary approval, when these new guidelines come into force, hopefully more people will be able to get the help they really need to get their lives back on track,” said Martin.

“Locking young women up for shoplifting and crimes of dishonesty does not work, we need to support them to break the cycle of crime and encourage more positive behaviour patterns.”

“Although this particularly applies to women the same principles can be directed at young male offenders as well. Jail should only be seen as very last resort,” he added.