"We need a coherent penal policy. Prison should be for serious and dangerous offenders, not fine-defaulters or the flotsam and jetsam of our communities. - KENNY MACASKILL, JUSTICE SECRETARY
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THOUSANDS of criminals, including thieves, housebreakers, vandals and fine-defaulters, will be spared prison sentences under radical plans announced yesterday by the new Scottish Executive.
Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, said he wanted to adopt a more liberal approach to penal policy.
Prison, he said, should be reserved for "serious offenders", not the "flotsam and jetsam" of society that, he claimed, was clogging up the nation's prisons unnecessarily. Of the 7,000 prisoners in Scotland today, most are in jail for sentences of six months or less.
Mr MacAskill believes many of these criminals should be serving community sentences instead, leaving prison for long-term, serious criminals.
He said he was really concerned with those imprisoned for drink- and drug-related offences, those with mental health problems, first-time offenders and fine-defaulters.
But he refused to say how many of these prisoners would be spared jail under his plans, whether certain offences would be exempt from prison terms or how the new approach would be adopted.
The minister did say, however, that early next week, he would be meeting the National Advisory Board on justice - a body which represents the major interest groups in Scottish justice - and would be asking for progress on this issue.
Mr MacAskill also announced the SNP government would recruit an extra 1,000 police officers and launch a crackdown on under-age drinkers and those who sell alcohol to them.
He intended to move to ban discounted alcohol promotions in shops and off-licences and launch an anti-violence agenda focusing on changing the culture on knives.
He confirmed, as expected, that he did not want private companies running prisons in Scotland but said this would apply to "new" prisons, leaving the future of Kilmarnock, Scotland's only private jail, unclear.
Stealing a well-known line from Tony Blair, Mr MacAskill said it was time to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime".
He said the government would come down hard on serious offenders, but it would concentrate on the social and economic problems that led to many other crimes.
"We will detain the dangerous but treat the troubled," he said.
On drugs, he said: "We must stop the situation where young people - whether because of low self esteem or lack of opportunity - shoot up and opt out."
He went on: "Our clear aim is to prevent and deter crimes. But those who offend must face the consequences of their actions."
But it was on prison policy that he was most detailed and controversial.
He said: "We need a coherent penal policy. Prison should be for serious and dangerous offenders, not fine-defaulters or the flotsam and jetsam of our communities.
"So we need to shift the balance, with less serious offenders currently cluttering our prisons sentenced to community punishments."
The minister added: "I want tough community punishments which will protect the public, help offenders turn their lives around and involve some payback to communities they harmed."
After the parliamentary debate, Mr MacAskill told The Scotsman that "those who are dangerous or who have committed a serious offence must go to prison".
But he went on: "Those who have a drug addiction might be dealt with, using drug-treatment and testing orders; fine-defaulters should be dealt with in other ways."
He said he wanted community sentences to be both visible and effective, and for them to be the "first port of call" for sheriffs, not just an alternative to prison.
The latest government statistics show the widespread use of short-term prison sentences.
About 16,000 people were given custodial sentences by Scottish courts in 2005-6, and 83 per cent of those sentences were for six months or less.
A total of 57 per cent were for three months or less, for offences such as drunkenness, motor vehicle offences, breach of the peace, vandalism and shoplifting, and many of them were drug related.
Mr MacAskill did not reveal how many of these prisoners he wished to see given community sentences instead, but he did make it clear that he wanted to see a change in attitude and a presumption against short-term jail sentences.
Margaret Curran, the shadow justice secretary, was critical of Mr MacAskill's proposals, warning that many of those in prison serving short-term sentences were dangerous and had been locked up for the good of society.
She said: "The SNP believes that people in prison serving sentences of less than six months are merely the 'flotsam and jetsam' of society who should be on the streets rather than in prison.
" The reality is that these are criminals who have been convicted of breach of the peace, common assault, indecent assault, drunk drivers and people convicted of handling offensive weapons."
Bill Aitken, for the Tories, said: "Frankly, there is nobody who is sent to jail who should not be sent to jail. This is not done on a whim. Sentencing is a matter for judges who act in the public interest.
"Part of the problem here is that there is a total lack of confidence in the existing community disposals. There are far too many instances of fines not being paid, of community service not being done, of probation orders not being adhered to, and until such time as action is taken under these headings, then the judiciary, the public will not have confidence that they operate as a realistic deterrent to wrongdoers."
David Sinclair, of Victim Support Scotland, said his organisation was in favour of changing the approach, but only if the community sentences which replaced prison terms were meaningful and had the support of the public.
He said: "Mr MacAskill told us that, whatever form of community sentence was handed down, it would be tough.
"We hope that he takes the public with him on this. The criminal justice system has to be seen to be effective and the punishment has to be seen to fit the crime.
"Victims of crime and witnesses have to feel the punishment is working."
'LOCKING PEOPLE UP IS NOT ALWAYS THE ANSWER'
I COMPLETELY agree with the minister on this. Sentences under six months and in, many cases, sentences under 12 months are not only pointless but ridiculously expensive and counter-productive.
This would also accord with the submissions put in to the Sentencing Commission by the Scottish Prisons Service. They said that, for anyone serving a sentence of less than 12 months, they cannot do anything with them, they cannot do any rehabilitation work or use meaningful drugs programmes because there is just not enough time.
The Howard League would go even further than that. We think there is far too much reliance on prison as an answer to society's problems.
The number of people with mental health problems or personality disorders is significant, as is the number with drink and drug problems. Our prisons are effectively a cross between a casualty ward and a psychiatric ward.
In many cases you are stripping people of the very things that stop them from re-offending - contact with their family, jobs, accommodation and community drug services.
There is often a disruption to medication and drug services when people go into prison, making them much more likely to reoffend.
In Scotland we have the threat of privatisation. If we went ahead with the New Labour plans, we would have in Scotland the highest number of prisoners per head of population in private prisons - higher than America. While the buildings themselves are fine, there are other aspects in relation to safety of staff and rehabilitation and so on, where they have not done so well.
We have as many community based disposals as we need but we don't use them enough. Sheriffs still send too many people to prison.
• John Scott chairs the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland.
'NEED IS FOR SENTENCES THAT ACT AS A REAL DETERRENT'
WE ARE likely to part company significantly with the Executive on the issue of short-term custodial sentences.
Nobody is sent to jail who should not be sent to jail. This is not done on a whim.
Sentencing is a matter for judges, who act in the public interest. Part of the problem is a lack of confidence in the existing community disposals.
There are far too many instances of fines not being paid, of community service not being done, of probation orders not being adhered to.
Until action is taken, the public will not have confidence that they are a realistic deterrent.
Sentencers will not be persuaded unless the Executive can demonstrate a determination to ensure that fines are paid by implementing powers to deduct them by means of instalments from salaries and benefits.
The public also needs to know that community service is actually done. It should be done visibly and it should be measurable. At the moment there are far too many instances where the work is simply not being done.
So that will also have to be looked at. The reoffending rate in respect of those doing community service is positively alarming. We need to get real on this issue if we are to deter offending and avoid people going to jail when they can be dealt with in the community.
One of the real problems is the fact that jail sentences now do not have the deterrent effect that they should have. I accept that there may be societal reasons for that but, despite what may be said by others, we still effectively have the problem of early release.
Because of that, prison numbers will not go up.
• Bill Aitken is the Tories' justice spokesman.
AT the heart of the minister's speech was a commitment to change sentencing, ending many short-term custodial sentences.
Kenny MacAskill made it clear this was the way he wanted the justice system to go but he provided no detail.
It was unclear last night how many offenders would be spared jail and which offences, if any, would not come with prison sentences any more.
1,000 EXTRA POLICE
KENNY MacAskill committed the Executive to recruiting 1,000 extra police officers.
Or rather, he said he would recruit the "equivalent of" 1,000 extra police. It is not clear exactly what this means but it is certainly not as definitive as the SNP manifesto commitment.
Also, there was no timescale mentioned yesterday, which means it could be as much as four years away.
THE minister said the SNP government would launch a crackdown on underage drinkers and those who sell alcohol to them.
He warned licensees that they had a responsibility not to serve alcohol to youngsters "or face the consequences". This would almost certainly mean the removal of licenses from offenders and harsh penalties for youngsters who are caught buying alcohol.
THE minister said he wanted to move to ban discounted alcohol promotions in shops and off licenses.
This has already been done in pubs, but Mr MacAskill wants to extend it to off-sales as well.
The previous Executive gave local licensing boards the discretion to act in their area and while Mr MacAskill gave no details, he may decide to set tougher, national guidelines.
THE SNP government will launch a nationwide campaign against violence, focusing on knife crime.
Mr MacAskill wants to see role models, such as footballers, come into schools and spread an anti-knife message. He believes that the culture of carrying a knife is to blame for much of the violence and believes that if he can change that, he can make progress on knife crime itself.
KENNY MacAskill said he wanted to create a Serious Crime Taskforce.
This will be an FBI-style unit, bringing expertise in from various areas of the police, to fight organised crime.
However, this proposal is very similar - if not identical - to plans unveiled by the last Labour-Lib Dem Executive for this sort of body.
It does look as if the SNP has simply inherited this project.
KEEP PRISONS PUBLIC
THE minister said he wanted to stop private companies from running any new prisons in Scotland.
This is significant because it had been suggested recently that the SNP would try to turn Kilmarnock, Scotland's existing private prison, into a state-run institution. This now seems unlikely, with Mr MacAskill now determined to stop private companies running either of the two new prisons in Scotland.
PROCEEDS OF CRIME
KENNY MacAskill said he wanted to re-invest the proceeds of crime in services for young people in local communities.
He announced that money taken from criminals would be used to build up community facilities for young people.
The minister said there was currently 8 million available in money taken from criminals and this would now be invested in this way. He said he hoped business would match the investment.