Are we serious about cutting the number of women sent to jail in Scotland?

Two years ago, the responses to former Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini's Commission On Women Offenders report suggested we were.

A doubling in the number of women in prison in Scotland since devolution could not go on, the Scottish Government said. Many are jailed for low-level offences, and are trapped in a cycle of deprivation, alcohol and drug abuse, the Justice Secretary acknowledged. Many have mental health conditions, and a past history of physical or sexual abuse.

The impact on children who have committed no offence of imprisoning their mothers is too grave, the Government's response added. New sentencing options should be considered.

This is not about special pleading for women. It is just that the evidence is other sanctions are more appropriate and effective for most women offenders.

Describing this as one of the most pressing social justice issues of recent times, Kenny MacAskill said he would work with people across the criminal justice system, and wider public sector, to deliver the Angiolini review's recommendations.

However, the number of women in prison rose from 210 in 2000 to 430 in 2010-11 and has barely fallen since. A fortnight ago there were 413 women in custody.

The Howard League Scotland, which campaigns for penal reform, says the emphasis is still on locking women up rather than the community-based alternatives Ms Angiolini called for.

It has laid out its concern in a letter to the Justice Committee ahead of Mr MacAskill's appearance there early next month.

Ms Angiolini had enough nous to predict this outcome. She pointed out that, of 10 previous reports and inspections relating to women's imprisonment in the UK, not one had been implemented in full. So one of her report's demands was for an annual update in Parliament on the adoption of its findings.

The Howard League's says the recommendations are not being implemented the way Ms Angiolini and her team intended. It is hard to disagree. In particular, the report said HMP Cornton Vale, Stirling, should be closed and replaced with a smaller specialist jail for women serving longer sentences or who present a "significant risk" to the public.

Instead, the current plan is to build a new women's prison, HMP Inverclyde, in Greenock, with room for 350 inmates, while retaining 50 places for prisoners in the new HMP Grampian and also in HMP Edinburgh. The Scottish Prison Service says a smaller jail might become overcrowded, as its projections show the number of women in custody will rise. The new prison, when it opens in 2017, will handle young and old offenders, on remand and convicted, serving sentences from a few months to life.

While predicting more women will be sent to jail, officials voice the contradictory hope that "in time" alternatives to custody will see numbers fall. Yet, just as building new roads tends to increase the number of cars driven, the Howard League says building more jails tends to increase the numbers sent there. Equally, investment in community alternatives would see courts use them more. Unfortunately, such investment remains trivial: £3 million over two years in Scotland, the League claims, against £60m to build the new prison, and an estimated £13m a year in the cost of imprisoning women.

In its update to the Justice Committee, the Scottish Prison Service says the design of HMP Inverclyde will contribute to meeting the Commission's recommendations. But better conditions for women in custody - an outside garden and play space, a mother and baby unit, and help with addiction problems - were not the top priority in Ms Angiolini report.

The worst thing Mr MacAskill could say to the Justice Committee on August 5 is probably that decisions about the size and design of HMP Inverclyde are operational matters for the SPS. This profoundly misses the point of the commission's report.

As the Howard League adds: "It is unfair to expect the Scottish Prison Service - whose business it is to build and operate prisons - to take an overview of the whole package required to reduce female imprisonment in Scotland, when so much of the task ... is beyond their control."