Women in the justice system: evidence review

A review of quantitative evidence, drawn from a range of statistical data sources across the justice system in Scotland, comparing findings for women against those for men.

This document is part of a collection

4. Patterns of offending and the justice system response

Key findings:

  • Around one-in-six people convicted of crime are females, with the clear majority being males.
  • The decline in convictions over the past decade is mostly driven by a decrease for males, but a decline is also seen for females.
  • Females are less likely to receive a custodial sentence than males and more likely to be issued with another sentence (mostly admonishments).
  • Women generally receive shorter sentences than men.
  • Females are reconvicted less often, on average, than males, although the gap has closed in recent years.
  • A small minority of prisoners managed by the Scottish Prison Service are women, with the overwhelming majority being men.
  • Just under one-in-five violent crimes were committed by female offenders.
  • Around one-in-six incidents of domestic abuse involve a female accused, with the vast majority involving male accused.
  • Just over one-in-ten homicides over the past five years had a female accused, with the vast majority involving a male accused.

This section provides information on the differences between women and men identified when looking at patterns of offending and the justice system response. This covers a range of statistics, including data on criminal proceedings, prison population and the characteristics and types of crimes women are involved in as the offender.

There is a consistent pattern over time of women being less likely to be involved across Scotland's justice system than men.

For example, in 2019-20:

  • 17% of people convicted of a crime were women
  • 9% of people given custodial sentences were women
  • 7% of individuals spending any time in prison were women
  • 5% of prisoners on an average day were women

4.1 Patterns of offending

The SCJS includes some information on the characteristics of those who carried out the offence, from the perspective of the victim.

The SCJS results highlight that the majority of violent crimes in 2019-20 (73%) were carried out by male offenders only – a consistent finding over the years. A further 19% of incidents involved female offenders only, whilst in 8% of cases both men and women were responsible.

Property crimes were also mostly committed by males. Of those incidents in which the victim was able to say something about the offender, 71% of incidents involved male offenders only, while 15% involved female only perpetrators, and 11% involved both males and female perpetrators. In 3% of incidents the respondent did not know the gender of the offenders.

Drug possession crimes are also predominantly committed by males. In both 2018-19 and 2019-20, the vast majority (85%) of drug possession crimes were committed by males or all male groups[22].

Males are more likely than females to commit violent crime, however, the reduction in violence over the past decade has been driven by fewer incidents involving male perpetrators.

The clear majority (84%) of attempted murder & serious assaults had a male or all male group of perpetrators in 2017-18. This is similar to the figure in 2008-09 (82%)[23]. An earlier study into common assault recorded by the police in 2014-15 found that around three quarters (74%) of perpetrators were male[24] and men also commit the vast majority of sex offences and gender-based violence offences.

In addition, around five-out-of-every-six robberies (82%) had a male or all male group of perpetrators in 2017-18. Only 6% of robberies in 2017-18 had a female or all female group of perpetrators[25].

Over the past five years (2016-17 to 2020-21) females have made up 9% (35 of 382) of those accused of homicide, where the case was solved (i.e. where accused person(s) were identified).

Amongst those accused of Murder or Culpable homicide, females have a lower per million population rate than males across all age brackets, with females having the highest rate in the 21 to 30 years old bracket (the same peak as for males) [26].

4.2 Perpetrators of police recorded domestic abuse

In 2020-21, the clear majority (82%) of incidents of domestic abuse involved male accused (where it was known whether they were female or male). Of these, 80% involved a female victim and 1% a male victim. Smaller proportions of incidents involve female accused. In 2020-21, 16% of domestic abuse incidents involved a female accused and a male victim, and 2% involved a female accused and a female victim. Overall 18% of domestic abuse incidents involved an accused who was female[27].

The type of crime that was most frequently recorded in 2020-21 as part of a domestic abuse incident where the accused was a female was Common assault, accounting for 39% of all crimes and offences recorded, followed by Breach of the peace etc. (21%) and Crimes against public justice (16%).

These crimes and offences are also the most commonly recorded where the accused was male, however Common assault was less prevalent in these instances (31%). Breach of the peace etc. and Crimes against public justice were more prevalent in comparison (24% and 18% respectively).

In terms of location of the incident, in 2020-21, 38% occurred in the victim's home for incidents where the accused was female, compared to 46% where the accused was male.

Section 2.5 presents information on police recorded domestic abuse, with a focus on female victims (with male perpetrators).

4.3 Convictions, reconvictions and prisons

In 2019-20, females accounted for 17% of all convictions, compared to 83% for males.

Females have a different pattern of offending compared to males. While they only make up 17% of all convictions, they accounted for relatively higher proportions of convictions for certain types of offences – "cruelty to and unnatural treatment of children" (71%), "fraud" (34%) and "drunkenness and other disorderly conduct" (32%).

In 2019-20 there were 15 convictions per 1,000 population. There were more convictions for males at 26 convictions per 1,000 population, compared to five for females. The overall number of convictions per 1,000 population has declined over the last ten years from 24 convictions per 1,000 population in 2010-11. The decline has been driven by a decrease for males, down from 42 convictions per 1,000 population in 2010-11 to 26 in 2019-20. The number for females has been consistently much lower than for males, but also shows an overall decline, from seven to five convictions per 1,000 population between 2010-11 and 2019-20.

Overall, males are more likely to receive a custodial sentence than females. This is illustrated by males accounting for 83% of all people convicted in 2019-20 but representing a higher proportion of all custodial sentences (91%).

Females were more likely to be issued with an "Other sentence" (which are mostly admonishments) with 27% of these types of punishments having been given to females compared to the 17% of all convictions that females represent. Please note that sentencing decisions are reflective of a number of factors such as the severity of the crime and whether the individual has offended in the past. In addition, the decision on what type of punishment is reasonable will be based on the personal circumstances of the offender. These statistics do not take account of these factors.

However, the data shows that when comparing females and males by the severity of crime, it is evident much higher numbers of males are convicted for crimes that carry a higher tariff. For example, homicide, attempted murder and rape carry long custodial sentences and less than 10% of those convicted of these crimes are females (zero in the case of rape). For the crime types which usually see higher proportions of female convictions, such as cruelty to children, fraud and drunkenness there are much shorter custodial sentences issued and/or a higher likelihood of community or other sentences being the penalty administered[28].

Over the last ten years, between 2010-11 and 2019-20, less than half (46%) of females convicted for homicide or culpable homicide were issued a life sentence. This compares to two-thirds (66%) of males convicted of these crimes over the same period. Females convicted for these crimes were almost as likely to be issued with a sentence of four years and over (44%), compared to 28% of males who are issued with this sentence for these crimes.

Differences can also be seen in the patterns of reconvictions when broken down by female and males. Females are reconvicted less often, on average, than males, although the gap has closed in recent years. However, the proportion of females returned to prison on reconviction (following an earlier custodial sentence) is fairly similar to that for males (28% and 31% reconvicted within one-year in 2018-19, respectively).

In 2018-19 the reconviction rate[29] for males was 29.0%, which was 4.4 percentage points higher than for females. Since 1997-98, the reconviction rate for males fell by 3.9 percentage points from 32.9%, while the rate for females has remained relatively unchanged over that time, falling by less than one percentage point from 25.4%.

In the latest year, the average number of reconvictions per offender for males was 0.51, which was 6% higher than the value of 0.48 for females. As with the reconviction rates, this figure has fallen more for males than females since 1997-98 (down 19% compared to 6%).

The above differences in both the reconviction rate and average number of reconvictions per offender between male and female offenders is consistent across all age groups.

The majority of offenders in 2018-19 cohort (almost three-quarters, 71.7%) were not reconvicted for any crime. For those that were reconvicted, more were reconvicted for breach of the peace than any other type of crime (9.8% of all offenders). This is the case for both male (10.3%) and female offenders (7.3%). Fewer were reconvicted for a sexual crime than any other type of crime (0.4% of all offenders), this was also the case for male (0.5%) and female offenders (0.1%).

The prison population in Scotland[30] is largely comprised of men aged 21 and over. Women have consistently constituted a very small proportion of the prison population, at around 5-6% since 2001-02. In 2019-20, this figure stood at 4.9%, equating to around 400 women in prison on an average day.

Looking at the average daily prison population, women in prison in Scotland have been consistently more likely than men to be on remand since at least the year 2000, although it is hard to make direct comparisons due to the different nature of the population of men and women.

The most common charges associated with women held on remand in 2019-20 were attempted murder and serious assault, common assault or drugs offences. Among women in the sentenced population, murder, attempted murder or serious assault are the most common index offences.

This offence pattern changes when we look at in-flows of women to prison. Largely arriving to remand, common assault, crimes against public justice, drugs offences and breach of the peace together accounted for around half of women's arrivals in 2019-20.

Very few women are imprisoned for sexual index offences, which made up 15% of the men's average daily prison population over 2019-20. When sexual offences are excluded, women are more often imprisoned for crimes of dishonesty, and less often for crimes of violence, than men.

Although short sentences have reduced in frequency for both men and women, women generally receive shorter sentences than men. However, there has been a steady increase in the proportion of women serving life sentences over the past decade, from 6.7% in 2009-10 to 12.2% in 2019-20.

In 2019-20, key differences in the characteristics of women prisoners compared to men are:

  • a more steeply peaked age distribution around ages 30-44 (59% vs 46%). Men have larger proportions in both younger (under 30) and older (45+) age bands
  • higher proportions are married (23% vs 15%). Women in prison were less likely to be single (70.5%) or divorced/separated (4.4%) than men (78.7% and 5.7% respectively)
  • slightly more identifying as Asian, and fewer as African, Caribbean or Black
  • slightly higher rates of self-reported disability (10% vs 9%)

Women arriving to prison are even more likely to come from the most deprived 20% of areas in Scotland than are men (55% of women compared with 48% of men).

In 2019-20, 69% of all community payback orders terminated were successfully completed – this rate was around the same for women (68%) as for men (69%). However, only 15% of orders imposed in that year were issued to women[31].


Email: Justice_Analysts@gov.scot

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