ALMOST twice as many offenders are jailed in Scotland, proportionally, than in England, figures show.
Fifteen per cent of convicted Scots are given custodial sentences, compared with 8 per cent south of the Border.
The figures suggest that, despite claims of “soft touch justice” in Scotland, sentencing is far tougher than in England.
The Scottish Government has been urged to launch an inquiry into why judges and sheriffs are more likely to opt for custody than their English counterparts.
John Scott QC, a leading human rights lawyer, said: “It’s a very stark contrast. It’s a contrast that should be better understood and must be explained.
“I can’t see why there should be such a huge difference. It is something the justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, should address.”
The Scottish Government has controversially favoured community sentences for minor offending. However, there have been concerns about their effectiveness, with recent figures showing that of 7,763 orders issued by the courts, 2,536 were completed.
Political opponents, including the Scottish Conservatives, have accused them of being too soft.
Inspector of prisons David Strang and his predecessor Brigadier Hugh Monro, and the Prisons Commission chaired by former First Minister Henry McLeish, have all backed a reduction in the prison population from around 8,000 to 5,000.
Victim Support Scotland also believes prison is ineffective when it comes to rehabilitating minor criminals, but should be used for more serious ones.
A spokesman said: “We know, and the statistics prove it beyond reasonable doubt, that sending people to prison time after time does not do anything to reduce reoffending. However, that has to be balanced by the fact the majority of victims of crime, particularly serious crime, and families, want to see sentences of imprisonment.”
The Scottish Government pointed to falling crime as an endorsement of its justice policy – although crime is falling across the western world, including in England.
A spokeswoman said: “Sentencing policy is a matter for Scottish courts.
“The action we are taking with our justice partners to tackle offending, including putting an extra 1,000 police officers in our communities, has seen crime fall to its lowest level in 39 years.”
Although Scottish judges and sheriffs sentenced more convicted offenders to prison, proportionately, than in England, the prison populations are comparable. There are 154 prisoners per 100,000 population in Scotland, compared with 155 in England and Wales.