THE WAY Nicola Sturgeon talks about criminals sentenced to several months in prison, you’d think every single one of them was merely a victim of circumstance.
The lie constantly pushed by the left is that it’s actually society’s fault people commit crimes, and sending some of them to prison is merely doubling down on this injustice.
Maybe, in a minority of instances, this is the case.
Yet you could see the glee in the faces of SNP, Labour and Green MSPs as the First Minister unveiled her Programme for Government, which contained plans to order sheriffs to have a presumption against handing down prison terms of less than a year. These politicians even applauded the idea of serious criminals turning up to court, knowing the worst punishment they were likely to get would be a fine or community payback order.
In its radical proposal last month, think tank Reform Scotland suggested extending this to six months. To see the Scottish Government double that timeframe will be hugely alarming to police, victims of crime and the majority of the Scottish people who expect the Courts to be able to keep our streets free of petty criminals.
But it is not only petty crime we are talking about. As Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson explained to the Holyrood chamber, there are some alarming statistics about the kind of people who currently are sentenced to less than a year.
In 2015/16 (the most recent statistics), more than 100 people were given a custodial sentence of between zero and 12 months for attempted murder or serious assault! Looked at another way, 17 per cent of offenders who were guilty of attempted murder or serious assault, got less than 12 months… and now there would be a presumption against imprisonment at all.
If criminals know they can turn up to court and won’t be jailed under any circumstances, it will do nothing to deter them from illegal activity and they will likely walk straight out of the dock and back onto the streets.
Is that really what the public expects our courts to be instructed to do by Government?
The Scottish Government, together with Police Scotland, repeatedly states that tackling domestic abuse is a top priority. No-one could possibly disagree with that sentiment, but these very changes to sentencing would undermine that drive. Of those guilty of attempted murder or serious assault, a considerable proportion were convicted with nothing more than a “domestic abuse aggravation”.
This sends out a terrible message.
It’s bad enough for victims of crime to see their tormentor back on the streets again; how much worse for a domestic abuse victims to have to let their aggressor back into the home following, remember, not “merely” an assault, but a serious assault. These vulnerable people already often feel like they have no escape. We don’t need Scotland’s justice system to close the walls even more tightly around them.
We also like to think of ourselves of a society intolerant of sexual abuse.
But had these new measures been in existence for 2015/16, then 27 people convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to less than a year would have been spared incarceration. In other words, a quarter of sex offenders sent to jail last year would now be, to all intents and purposes, let off the hook and back amongst us.
The SNP doesn’t like it when people accuse it of presiding over a soft-touch justice system, but that’s exactly what is happening, and it’s getting worse.
Of course, the nationalists will defend this significant change as a victory for rehabilitation that, in turn, will help reduce the reoffending problem Scotland struggles with so much. And in some cases, that may well be true.
But ministers have to remember that prison serves a purpose – it allows the offender to go on a journey of punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation, whilst restoring a sense of security for the victim and wider public.
Under these plans, three of those tenets have been cast aside.
That said, rehabilitation is a crucial issue, and one that deserves our utmost attention.
Over the years we have put forward numerous ideas to help this cause, not least improving access to vocational and employment opportunities.
But, the SNP have let this slide.
As it stands, more than 1000 prisoners in Scotland aren’t engaged in work or purposeful activity, and that doesn’t even include those who are deemed unable to take part through ill health.
That’s 17 per cent of Scotland’s prison population who, instead of training, learning about new disciplines or carrying out a trade, are festering in their jail cells, playing on games consoles and watching TV, at taxpayers expense.
In some facilities the rate is higher, and in some prisons there are far more inmates than there are places for work.
For example, at Low Moss prison, there are 755 prisoners and only 343 slots for purposeful activity.
In the space of two years, the number of hours taken up by work or meaningful activity in jail has fallen by around 300,000, with the average inmate doing an hour less per week than previously.
There will come a point where the taxpayer will wonder exactly what value of money is being extracted here, and this does nothing to allay the fears of those who think prison is little more than a holiday camp.
It’s understandable that, in a Programme for Government covering at least another 12 months of Scottish politics, Nicola Sturgeon wanted to do something meaningful on justice, especially given how stung she’s been by accusations of overlooking the day job while obsessing on the break-up of Britain.
But she chose the wrong measure in this speech.
A far better use of Scottish Government legislation would be introducing whole life sentences for the most serious offenders north of the border.
This is something the families of murder victims have been crying out for.
It would provide a guarantee that brutal killers can never pose a threat to the general public ever again.
Even when sentences of more than 20 years are handed down, families of murder victims cannot rest easy, knowing these individuals are sitting in their cells waiting for the day they will be let out again.
As it stands, that’s a day that they know is coming, but the Scottish Conservatives would change that.
Given the SNP has refused to include this in its Programme for Government, we will now take forward plans for a Member’s Bill on the subject.
It’s something government can do that would make life slightly easier for those who have suffered unimaginable trauma.
But the idea was shunned by the SNP, a party which wants to empty prisons rather than use them to keep the public safe.
Our judges are highly experienced, well trained and knowledgeable in determining the appropriate sentence for the crime. This damaging plan to have a presumption against 12 month sentences will make them feel like their hands are tied.
It won’t make Scotland safer, it will do the opposite, and an urgent rethink on this misguided proposal is required.
Liam Kerr is a Scottish Conservative & Unionist MSP for North East Scotland and Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Justice.