March 28, 2008
IT WAS third time lucky for ministers yesterday as they finally got controversial plans to tag longer-term prisoners through parliament.
After 2 previous attempts the Scottish Government brought the issue back to parliament yesterday and this time MSPs agreed to the change by 66 votes to 58.
The government—which won backing for a measure which will see tagging extended for short-term prisoners from a period of four-and-a-half months to six months a fortnight ago—wants to extend HDCs to ease pressure on the prison system, where the population has reached record levels.
It now tops 8000 against a design capacity of 6626—with about 330 prisoners currently in the community on HDCs.
In a debate on the subject yesterday Mr MacAskill assured MSPs that prisoners serving long-term sentences cannot be released on home detention curfew unless the parole board has already recommended their release and they subsequently meet the current assessment criteria for HDC.
“This will not change,” he said.
But after the vote, Scottish Tory justice spokesman Bill Aitken described the new policy as “dangerous.”
“Today parliament had a choice to keep prisoners in prison, not convicts in the community,” he said.
“The outcome was not wholly unsurprising but very, very serious.
“We now have a situation where somebody sentenced to four years will be out in 18 months.
“The scandal of sending high-risk prisoners to open prisons where they can abscond seemingly at will is bad enough.
“Now the SNP want to send virtually every prisoner home under their early, early release scheme and the consequences of this dangerous policy could be very serious,” Mr Aitken added.
“The public have every right to be furious that the SNP and the Lib Dems have put criminals first and them second.
“The public expects their government to protect them.”
Labour justice spokeswoman Pauline McNeill argued that parliament had already determined its will on this matter.
“It seems the procedures allow the reversal of the will of parliament on this because of a few mistakes that were made,” she said.
“The measures we are being asked to support are far extended from that and we are being asked to do this immediately for the single purpose of reducing the prison population.
“The proposal is significantly different because it will include more serious offenders and it will make all offenders eligible for early release for longer, up to a period of six months.
“Someone serving six years could be out in two and a half.”
Lib Dem justice spokeswoman Margaret Smith said her party backed the extension of HDC.
She said 40% of those who applied to be released from prison early under the scheme were refused and that 69% of those freed under tagging did not breach the conditions imposed.
“Of the 3000 people released on HDC less than 1% have offended while on the scheme,” she said.
“The overwhelming rationale for releasing a prisoner should not be about the impact on prison numbers—it should be about looking at what is best for the offender in terms of re-integration into their community.
“It could be argued that long-term prisoners have an even greater need for that to be done gradually and effectively.”
Our view is that yet again law and order has been allowed to become a political points scoring exercise. The Conservative Party ought to be deeply ashamed of allowing itself to stoop so low as to behave in this way. Law and order is far too important a matter for any serious political party to enter into empty soundbites to attract short term voter support. The public will not be fooled. It is high time that our MSPs entered into serious debate to tackle the rise in the prison population. Wilful blindness is no answer.
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