Scots justice bill sparks call over sentences

13 Nov 15

Abolishing prison sentences of 12 months or less could deliver significant savings to the public purse as well as improve the quality of justice in Scotland, a leading penal reform campaigner has told Public Finance.

Maggie Mellon, of the Scottish Consortium on Crime and Criminal Justice, called on the Scottish Government to legislate to end all summary sentences by sheriffs – that is, sentences of a year or less – as well as custodial remands in respect of charges that might attract these sentences.

“They are sentences that actually do more harm than good. They cost a huge amount in terms of both money and the harm they do to people’s lives,” she said.

“They cost the public an amazing amount of money for a failing thing to do.”

She added: “Everybody knows that the worst thing you can do to people is to put them in jail and disrupt their lives, because they actually come out as offenders. That’s what prison is good for – creating offenders.”

She was speaking during a Holyrood magazine conference in Edinburgh, organised to coincide with the Community Justice (Scotland) Bill – which aims to replace regional community justice authorities with a more inclusive, locally delivered and strategically coherent structure – beginning its progress through the Scottish Parliament

Mellon said she has little faith in the bill, because it will be undermined by public spending cutbacks. She argued that community-based responses to offending are not always a cheap alternative to prison and the most economic answers came through early intervention.

“Sometimes people don’t need that much [community attention] if they’ve had proper education, if they learn to read and write,” she added.

Often, she said, the police end up dealing with people who have social problems such as homelessness or alcohol abuse just because no one else is helping.

“The point people miss is that all that has to happen anyway – when people get out of prison, they still need to be housed, they still need health services – but it’s happening haphazardly and wrongly,” Mellon said.

“The ideas are there, the structures are there and the special services that have been developed, like those for women offenders, are much cheaper and more effective than prison.”

Sheriffs, she said, need a broader range of disposal options, such as more bail hostels.

“Quite often, what they most need to know is simply that someone is taking this person on, monitoring them, supporting them, making sure they come up to court next time they’re called, making sure their housing position is dealt with, making sure they keep appointments.”

Paul Wheelhouse, Scottish minister for community safety and legal affairs, told the conference the bill had been in development since 2012 and included ideas contributed by many in the criminal justice field.

Reoffending, he said, costs an estimated £3bn a year in Scotland, and has well-established links to poverty, mental illness, addiction and homelessness.

“The Scottish Government therefore wants to promote a holistic, collaborative approach,” he said.

The bill puts duties on a defined list of partners to develop local approaches to reducing reoffending, under a national strategy overseen by a new agency, Community Justice Scotland.

Wheelhouse said ministers would provide £1.6m a year over three years to implement moves set out in the bill.

“The ethos of improvement at the heart of the new model will provide greater opportunities for Community Justice Scotland to share best practice,” he added.

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

Did you enjoy this article?