December 18, 2008
The Scottish Government plans to introduce legislation to end prison sentences of less than 6 months. Unsurprisingly this has been met with strong opposition from both Labour and the Conservatives. Much of the opposition appears to be uninformed and amounts to no more than an immediate knee jerk reaction to what appears to be a carefully thought out policy by the SNP.
Scottish jails contain more people per head of population than any other European country. And the reoffending rates suggest that prison isn't working. Nearly half of those given custodial sentences in 2006-7 had already been to prison at least three times and nearly one in six more than ten times. More than two-thirds of offenders who do time in jail are re-convicted within two years of release.
The Scottish Government's proposals unveiled yesterday include legislation to make it clear to judges they should not impose sentences of less than six months unless they feel there is no other option. And they will be expected to give reasons in court if they opt for such a sentence rather than one of the new community "payback" orders.
The new orders will provide "instant justice", requiring offenders to start unpaid work within a week and complete it within a year. There will also be provision for "review hearings" to check on the progress being made.
There is widespread agreement among those closely involved in the justice system that short periods in prison do little good. They remove offenders from friends and relations who might offer support and place them instead among other criminals, who are unlikely to be a good influence, and there is not enough time for those in programmes to reduce re-offending.
Statistics also show those sent to prison for short sentences are more likely to be re-convicted and sent back to prison than those given community sentences.
Some 58 per cent of offenders who get a community service do not re-offend within two years, compared with only 26 per cent of those released from prison sentences of six months or less. Yet over 80 per cent of prison sentences currently being imposed by courts are for less than six months – a total of 14,686 in 2006-7 – and around a third of those involve common assault, breach of the peace, drunkenness or breach of a court order.
Jail is also an expensive punishment, with the cost of housing a single prisoner estimated at between £31,000 and £40,000 a year.
The Government insists there is no risk of dangerous offenders being left at large under its new policy because judges will always retain the discretion to impose a prison sentence if they feel it is necessary.
Scotland's soaring jail population is unsustainable, even with the opening of the new prison at Addiewell in West Lothian and another on the way.
The number of people locked up has grown by more than 20 per cent since the start of the 21st century, increasing from an average daily population of 5833 in 2000-1 to 7183 in 2006-7, with a record prison population of 8137 recorded a couple of months ago.
That gives Scotland the highest incarceration rate in Europe, 141 prisoners for every 100,000 people in Scotland, compared with a figure of 118 less than a decade ago.
Any major change in penal policy which can be portrayed as going soft on crime is always going to cause controversy. The SNP is often accused of being populist – but this is one area where the allegation cannot be made. And Mr MacAskill's readiness to take on the issue shows political courage.
One senior SNP insider says: "Politically it's difficult, but it just has to be done and it hadn't been done by the previous administration. It gives the lie to the idea we only do the things that are easy."
Tory opposition is to be expected and demonstrates yet again that their penal policy is based on theories of retribution and are totally devoid of anything other than an obvious attempt to make penal policy a political vote winner. It is the Tories who run a populist policy. But Labour's stance on the issue is slightly surprising given the fact most of the measures were recommended by the Prisons Commission, chaired by former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish.
It seems to reflect a growing hard line by the party on justice issues. Frontbenchers have accused the SNP of wanting to "empty the prisons". And last week, a US-inspired initiative to tackle gang violence by offering training, jobs and education was branded a "hug a hoodie" scheme by community safety spokesman Paul Martin.
But one Labour MSP admits to finding the approach "depressing" and adds: "Anyone who knows anything about it feels uncomfortable with what we're saying."
There are, however, more constructive criticisms to be made of the Government's plan to move away from short jail terms to community sentences.
SACRO, which works in communities to reduce offending, has warned more money is needed if community orders are to work properly and it will take time for the savings from a reduction in the prison population to materialise. For the new policies to work will require a major cash expenditure. However you look at it, penal policies cost money.
The Government has shown it is willing to bite the bullet on a tricky issue. Now it needs to come up with the cash to make its new policy a success.
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