February 8, 2008
SCOTTISH PRISON delegates will examine the problems facing the penal system and the future role of prisons, including the troubled open estate, at a conference in Edinburgh today.
Experts in community justice and non-custodial sentencing will explore the impact of crime on society and how trends towards criminalisation are affecting communities.
Delegates will also look at the impact for courts, prisons and community justice services of bringing an end to the system of automatic early release.
Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill has announced a review of Scotland’s prisons and has set up a commission of experts to investigate the purpose and impact of imprisonment.
Service chiefs have vowed to make public the findings of an internal review into the regime at troubled Castle Huntly open prison near Dundee by the end of the month.
The newly appointed Chair of the Prisons Commission, Henry McLeish, will make the keynote speech at the conference, which will explore the future role of prisons in Scotland.
“This conference on penal reform provides a welcome opportunity to debate what is undoubtedly one of the most serious challenges facing modern Scotland,” said Mr McLeish.
“We have been given an important and challenging remit and our members are being asked to provide some fresh thinking in response to a long-standing problem and will report back with our recommendations in June.
“The commission’s first priority is to look at the impact for courts, prisons and community justice services of bringing an end to the current arbitrary system of automatic early release.
“The Custodial Sentences and Weapons Act was backed by parliament but will have major implications for the criminal justice system.
“However, recently published prison population projections from the Scottish Prison Service paint an alarming picture and the future of prisons, punishment and rehabilitation needs to be urgently addressed.
“The justice secretary has set my commission a tight timescale in which to deliver a series of recommendations, but we are determined to deliver and look forward to making a worthwhile contribution.
“We are also keen to hear from members of the public and challenge perceptions on crime and punishment.
“Sentencing in individual cases is absolutely a matter for the courts, but we have to acknowledge the fact that around two thirds of people released from prison in Scotland are reconvicted within two years.
“That would appear to suggest that the time has come for a rethink.
“As well as the wide range of expertise on the commission, we want to consult and hear from all sections of society who have something productive to offer as we look to provide answers to a number of crucial issues.
“Like many others in the field, I don’t accept that Scottish people are different from others, yet we lock up twice as many offenders as Ireland and Norway.
“I know the current administration is looking closely at problems associated with drink, drugs and deprivation—after all half of Scotland’s prison population comes from just 15% of our poorest council wards.
“But we also need to face up to some tougher questions; who are we sending to prison and why? Is prison really the most effective option when dealing with minor offenders? How do we better address levels of reoffending? How can we further improve the effectiveness of community penalties? And what are the cost implications for the penal system if current overcrowding trends continue?”
Experts at the conference include Professor Andrew Coyle, Professor of Prison Studies at King’s College London; Kristin Bolgen Bronebakk, director general of the Norwegian prison service and Professor Tapio Lappi-Seppala, director of the Finnish National Research Institute of Legal Policy.
Latest figures, obtained under Freedom of Information, show absconding from Castle Huntly has almost doubled in two years.
The figures are even higher than those presented to parliament last month as the First Minister pledged to address “deficiencies” in the system following the latest high-profile escape.
Prison governor Ian Whitehead confirmed 71 inmates absconded from the enlarged Castle Huntly in 2007, against 36 in 2005.
At the end of last month five were still missing, including two who have been on the run for over a year.
Scottish Prison Service policy states that the public should not be told the men’s names as it would violate their right to privacy.