Lethal scandal of early release
EVERY murder is a tragedy. But the horrific slaying of Kriss Donald will go down as one of the worst killings in Scottish criminal history. Snatched off the streets at random, he was beaten savagely then stabbed 13 times before being doused in petrol and set on fire, while still alive. "I'm only 15," Kriss begged his killers. "What did I do?" The answer: he did nothing. Another sickening factor in an already shocking crime.
As if the details of this truly awful murder were not bad enough, we now know that one of Kriss's three killers was free to commit the crime because he had been released from prison after serving just half of a 30-month sentence for assault to danger of life and dangerous driving. Imran Shahid - described by the Kriss Donald case judge as "a thug and bully with a sadistic nature not fit to be free in civilised society" - had also done time for assault in 1995, yet was freed to take the lead role in Kriss's murder.
Shahid is an extreme, but by no means isolated, example. Around 9,000 prisoners are freed annually from Scottish prisons under early release, yet we have one of the highest levels of reoffending in Europe - 60% in 2004, compared with 56% in England and 36% in Germany. The scheme was introduced in 1993 so that prisoners could spend the latter part of their sentences being reabsorbed in the community. But an equally important driving force behind the scheme - which enjoyed cross-party support - was the need to reduce the number of prisoners in Scotland, then a record 5,350.
More than a decade on, with the prison population up to 6,800, the public suspicion is that the scheme remains popular largely because of the relief it offers our swollen institutions. And as the Scottish Prison Service warned on Friday, the situation is set to get worse, with at least 8,200 and as many as 9,500 prisoners projected by 2016.
Prison overcrowding is the only possible explanation for the Scottish Executive's craven disregard for the call to end automatic early release made earlier this year by the Sentencing Commission and backed by the majority of a public increasingly angry at the softly-softly approach to criminals. As we reveal today, Jack McConnell's government does plan to keep some prisoners under lock and key for longer, but all can expect to get out when they have served 75% of their terms. We were promised an uncompromisingly hard line but McConnell is merely tinkering with an explosive device.
Automatic early release is simply not acceptable. Our prisons include a hardcore of violent criminals who, however cleverly they have kept their noses clean while incarcerated, do not deserve to serve even a day less than the sentences imposed on them. Moreover, many will pose a threat to society as soon as they are back on our streets.
This approach is not suitable for all criminals; at the other end of the scale, more can be done to punish offenders through restorative justice in the community, and it is right to continue to review the reoffending threat posed by non-violent prisoners. But there must be no more automatic right of release for violent gangland thugs like Shahid. Kriss Donald's family would demand no less, and nor should we.
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