Leader: Focus on rehabilitation losing sight of punishment

A prison warden talks to an inmate in Barlinnie. Picture: Robert Perry
A prison warden talks to an inmate in Barlinnie. Picture: Robert Perry
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How we deal with society’s offenders has been a matter of debate for hundreds of years, and if there is a right and wrong to this matter, it could be said that we are still nowhere near working out the correct answer.

At the moment, the predominant theory is that rehabilitation is unrealistic when short-term sentences of under 12 months are handed out. As we report today, the prevailing view from those within the prison system is that anyone locked up for a short period might be preparing for release before a rehabilitation programme can be implemented properly, and in the meantime, that person’s life might have fallen apart – job, home, family – as a consequence of being jailed, thus creating circumstances where the released prisoner is likely to re-offend.

It’s hard to disagree with such an analysis, and it is inevitable that community sentences are being considered as an alternative for short sentences. There is a significant financial saving for the state when taking this approach, and the cost of handing down a prison sentence should also be questioned when statistics show 39 per cent of those locked up for up to six months will be back in jail within a year. Is that money well spent?

But while a move away from short sentences is favoured by the Scottish Government and represents the immediate future, the policy requires further consideration. We live in an era where rehabilitation has been elevated to the prime objective of the justice system following conviction, and the punishment element has almost been forgotten.

And for certain offences which currently earn short sentences, punishment remains at least as important as rehabilitation. This month, we have seen evidence that domestic abuse has increased. Removing the threat of a jail sentence for what is often a violent act will not reduce the number of these offences.

Community service orders may well have advantages over prison, but a blanket approach to ending short sentences will create as many problems as it hopes to resolve. A rethink is required.