SNP sentencing policy puts criminals before victims

SNP sentencing policy puts criminals before victims

by Liam Kerr
article from Wednesday 25, April, 2018

NICOLA STURGEON’S 2017/18 Programme for Government committed her Government to increasing the current presumption against jail terms of 3-months to 12-months, on the basis that short sentences simply do not ‘work’: that short sentences do little to rehabilitate or prevent reoffending.

Nicola Sturgeon has argued that this would be a progressive step that would make Scotland the envy of the justice world, yet this narrative is predicated on the idea that rehabilitation and prevention of reoffending are the only endgames.

Imprisonment has other functions, such as punishment, public safety and deterrence. And on that analysis short jail terms do ‘work’. 

Taken individually, sentencing an offender to a term in jail can offer the public respite by removing the offender from a community. For those in an area terrorised by motorbikes, blighted by graffiti and break-ins, paying to replace car windows, prison most certainly does ‘work’.

One former sheriff told me that short sentences are most often handed out to give the public a break for a while, often after many othernon-custodial sentences have been imposed, often on numerous occasions, but failed to stop someone re-offending. His view was that short sentences are chosen, in the main, to "give the public a rest". And, as I shall argue, it is important that this opportunity is taken to rehabilitate for a longer term solution.

And it is not just “lesser” offences: crimes such as sexual assault and attempted murder are often punishable by sentences of under a year. Even leaving aside that surely such offences deserve imprisonment, the victims deserve justice and protection. The needs of the victim and the community should surely be given the same, if not greater priority, as the rehabilitation of an offender. 

In 2016/17, 12,690 custodial sentences were handed out across Scotland. Of those, 10,104 attracted sentences of 12 months or less. That’s 10,104 people currently deemed suitable for prison by Scotland’s sheriffs and judges, but who under SNP proposals would have a presumption against having their liberty jeopardised.

Of those, 2 were convicted of homicide; 99 of serious assault including attempted murder; 60 of robbery; 35 of sexual assault; 279 of breaking-in and 285 found guilty of handling an offensive weapon. 

Where then is the deterrent if criminals know that their intended crime attracts a sentence of less than 12 months and therefore the chances are they will not go to prison?

A paper presented at the Royal Economic Society annual conference, by Giovanni Mastrobuoni at the University of Essex and David Rivers at the University of Western Ontario, concluded that short mandatory minimum sentences improve the deterrent effect of jail time for the worst crimes and save public money. 

With a 12-month presumption, criminals will be delighted that they’ll be able to appear in court knowing the chances of being sent home with just a fine or a community sentence are higher than ever.

Furthermore, the argument that short sentences don’t work rests largely upon the argument that by the time a criminal is released, they lapse straight into a life of crime.

But that’s not the fault of the length of sentence.

It’s the fault of a Scottish Government which hasn’t bothered to prioritise the idea of rehabilitation while people are inside. Rehabilitation can and should take place within detention facilities including educational and rehabilitative programmes as well as labour opportunities. And it does. To some extent.

As it stands, more than 1,000 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 lounging 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, Bishopbriggs, 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.

And what of the alternatives: principally fines and community sentences?

Every year millions of pounds in criminal fines are currently unpaid – with the latest data from the Scottish Court Service indicating fines and penalties worth nearly £10 million remain unpaid from the last three financial years. 

Community Payback Orders (CPOs) were set up by the SNP in 2011 as an alternative to custody and tagging. CPOs come in many different types including unpaid labour, intensive supervision, compensation, behavioural, drug or alcohol programmes, mandatory residence, specific conduct restrictions and treatment for mental illness or substance abuse. All of which are believed to be more conducive to rehabilitation of the offender and therefore the Government’s preferred method of punishment.

However, Criminal Justice Social Work statistics show that 19,136 offenders were given Community Payback Orders in 2016/17. Of those, over 6,200 (>32%) were not completed and 3,195 (17%) were breached. 

Perhaps worse, thousands of offenders are waiting too long to start Community Payback Orders. The SNP’s own target is that CPO work placements should start within one week. However, over 4,000 criminals waited longer than this timeframe in 2016/17. Incredibly, some offenders wait over a whole year for their unpaid work. The reality is that for many, by the time they start the CPO, the link with the crime for which they have been convicted has been long forgotten.

And despite planning to abolish short prison sentences and flood the community system with more offenders, the SNP is cutting the budget which supports this. Central Government grants to Local Authorities are being cut by £1.3 million. Spending plans show a reduction from £86.5 million in 2017-18 to £85.2 million in 2018-19. The budget document says ‘This ring-fenced funding supports local authorities in providing Criminal Justice Social Work services across Scotland. These services include supervising those offenders aged 16 and over who have been subject to a community disposal from the courts’.

Experts have warned that community sentences are under-resourced. A serving Sheriff said the system ‘with current resources simply could not cope’. The Scottish Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (SACRO) warned it was a ‘challenge’ to ‘ensure capacity is available for local authorities’. COSLA warned of the ‘real cost of the increased use of community payback orders’.

Finally, I was told in an answer to a Parliamentary Question late last year that “no decision has been made in relation to any required changes to social work reports as a result of increasing the presumption against short sentences”.

The SNP simply hasn’t thought this through beyond the headline.

The SNP’s bid to empty prisons jeopardises each and every one of their purposes. It will immediately allow thousands of dangerous people back onto the streets before having been rehabilitated, punished or deterred from committing crimes in the future. And the message to the victims is not a pleasant one.

Worst of all, the SNP move will further damage continued efforts to rehabilitate Scotland’s criminal community, and the lives of victims in Scotland. The decision will ensure the cycle of conviction continues, further damaging offenders, victims, their families and communities.

Liam Kerr is a Conservative MSP for the North East of Scotland and shadow Justice Secretary.

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