Community punishments to replace shortest prison sentences
The Scottish Government today lodged an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill which seeks to introduce a presumption against sentences of three months or less for low level offenders - in favour of tough, community-based punishments.
It seeks to amend existing proposals for a presumption against jail terms of six months or less, in order to secure the widest possible Parliamentary backing.
The amendment also has built-in flexibility allowing the presumption against custodial sentences to rise beyond three months at a future date, with the agreement of Parliament.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said:
"Prison will always be the right place for serious and dangerous offenders but for low level offenders the statistics are stark and show us that short sentences do not work.
"Three-quarters of those given a prison sentence of six months or less go on to reoffend within two years of getting out. That is not cutting crime, that is not protecting the public, and crucially, it isn't stopping people from reoffending. It's just a vicious circle. In comparison, three out of five offenders given tough community based sentences do not go on to reoffend.
"That is why, backed by the experts, we are proposing a change to the way things are done - changes which will reduce crime in Scotland's communities, changes which seek to send offenders out to repay their dues to the community through tough manual labour, and changes which aim to stop their crimes ever happening again.
"It is an approach which works, and there is a growing consensus in favour right across Scotland, the UK and further afield.
"We are therefore taking the pragmatic decision to introduce a presumption against short prison sentences of three months. This is a proposal which has the best chance of gaining wide parliamentary support - and also has built-in flexibility allowing Parliament to increase the presumption from three months at a later date.
"We are confident that we will be able to secure the parliamentary numbers needed to get this new policy through. This is a significant improvement upon the current system, which will allow us to take action to reduce crime even further in Scotland's communities.
"Crime in Scotland is at a near 30-year low, there is an all time record number of police officers - over 1,000 extra - on our streets protecting the public and making our communities safer. We want that to continue and will do everything in our power to continue making Scotland safer and stronger."
Welcoming the proposals, Victim Support Scotland chief executive David McKenna said:
"Sending people to prison for short periods of time does nothing to help victims of crime and often results in more victims in the future. Evidence tells us that short-term sentences increase the likelihood of reoffending and of reoffending very quickly.
"Offenders dealt with by tough community-based sanctions, importantly including those which involve paying back their debt to the community, are less likely to commit crime in the future. The time is right to end this revolving door and Victim Support Scotland backs the proposed presumption against sentences of three months or less as a key measure in improving the position of victims, offenders and the community. Prison should be reserved for violent and serious criminals to ensure public protection."
The evidence shows that short prison sentences don't work. 73.4 per cent of those who are sentenced to three months or less in prison go on to reoffend within 2 years; while in comparison 58 per cent of those who receive community sentences do not go on to reoffend.
The Scottish Government have provided record levels of funding (up from £13.4 million in 2008-09 to £19.4 million in 2010-11) to strengthen the system of community service and to speed up start and completion times.
As has been made repeatedly clear, the Scottish Government is seeking to introduce a 'presumption against' short prison sentences and judges would still be able to impose short prison sentences should they wish to do so based on the evidence before them.
The Penal Code for Germany provides that sentences of six months or less should only be imposed in extraordinary circumstances (and the courts must give reasons if they impose such sentences). The prison population is 89 per 100,000 in Germany. This compares with 150 per 100,000 in Scotland.
In the 1950s the Finnish rate of imprisonment, at 187 per 100,000, was one of the highest in Western Europe, four times higher than its Nordic neighbours. Over succeeding decades its rate of imprisonment fell significantly: to 154 in 1960, 113 in 1970, 106 in 1980, 69 in 1990 and 67 in 2009. In Finland courts have two basic sentencing options: the fine and imprisonment. If the sentence is up to eight months, there is an expectation that it will be converted into community service.
In June 2008, Scotland's Prison Commission led by Henry McLeish, published a wide ranging review of penal policy, recommending key changes, including those on short sentences, which the Scottish Government is acting upon through the Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill. The report stated: "We must work harder and be smarter in challenging and changing offenders and at tackling the underlying social and cultural factors that so often drive their offending and reoffending. Scotland's prisons hold too many prisoners on short sentences where there is no real expectation of being able to punish, rehabilitate or deter."
Protecting Scotland's Communities: Fair, Fast and Flexible Justice (published December 2008) was the Scottish Government's response to the Prison's Commission report.