THE futility of locking many women up in prison has long been recognised.

Most female prisoners are behind bars for low-level offences such as shoplifting, drugs crimes and breach of the peace. Many have mental health issues or are victims of physical and sexual abuse; few have to be in prison for reasons of public protection.

Reports have noted that 80% of women in Cornton Vale have mental health problems and 60% of women prisoners said they had been under the influence of drugs at the time of their crime. Prison clearly does not seem to be providing the solution, with seven out of 10 women offenders who receive a prison sentence of three months or less being convicted again within two years. Their children are also adversely affected and have a higher risk of ending up in prison themselves.

With these grim litany of statistics, it is little wonder that many believe a far more effective way to respond would be to keep these women out of prison wherever possible and instead focus on help and support, with sentences served in the community.

Yet the female prison population stands today at more than 400, despite calls more than 10 years ago to aim to reduce the numbers to a quarter of that. Two years on from Dame Elish Angiolini's Commission on Women Offenders report, progress is being made with plans to close Cornton Vale. The new facility at HMP Inverclyde, due to open in four years' time, can be seen as a step in the right direction.

However, fears have been raised that having a 350-bed facility and smaller regional prisons is designed to cope with growth, rather than a fall in female prisoner numbers. It should not simply become a means of displacing numbers to another jail and repeat the patterns of the past.

There will always be women who should be in prison due to the seriousness of their crimes. But continually locking up those women who are already struggling and marginalised in society, as one commentator noted, is simply a Victorian solution in 21st-century Scotland.