THE automatic early release from prison for the most serious violent and sexual offenders is to end, the First Minister has announced.
The measure will affect violent prisoners serving ten years or more for offences such as culpable homicide, attempted murder, serious assault and robbery.
It will also apply to sexual offences such as rape, sexual assault and sexual offences against children when a prisoner is serving four years or more.
The move was set out by the Alex Salmond in his “Programme for Government” statement, which outlines the legislative programme for the next parliamentary year in the run up to the referendum.
He unveiled his programme today on MSPs’ first day back after the summer recess.
There are 13 new bills in the legislative programme for 2013-14 and include measures to introduce a licensing system for air weapons, end the right to buy for council tenants and an overhaul the civil courts.
Currently, prisoners who receive a sentence of four years or more are entitled to be considered by the parole board for release between the half-way point of their sentence and the two-thirds point of their sentence.
If a long-term prisoner reaches the two-thirds of their sentence and the parole board has not directed release by that time, they are let out automatically.
The policy change means that for the first time, since the current regime was introduced in 1993, the Scottish Government will give the parole board power to decide if a prisoner should be released once he or she has served beyond the two-thirds point. Under the new arrangement, long-term prisoners will only be given their freedom if the board is satisfied it is safe to do so.
“We have all now accepted the need to end the system of automatic early release, which was brought in by the Conservative government in 1993 – and then left in place by the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition here at Holyrood. It does not command public confidence,” Mr Salmond said.
“We are now in a position to end automatic early release for sexual offenders getting sentences of four years or more and for serious violent offenders.”
The move follows growing concern about the crimes carried out by offenders who have been released on licence or under supervision orders.
Last month the first annual report by the Care Inspectorate looked at serious incidents involving offenders released from jail under those conditions.
It found that ten people were murdered by offenders released from jail. There were a further ten unexplained deaths, seven attempted murders, eight sexual offences, four suicides, three assaults to serious injury, two drug overdoses and one culpable homicide involving people under supervision.
The ending of automatic early release will be taken forward in an amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, announced on top of the 13 new pieces of legislation, which will determine how parliamentary time is spent in the months leading up to the 18 September referendum next year.
The proposal was given a cautious welcome by the government’s opponents. Some MSPs questioned why it had not been done earlier, given it has been an SNP manifesto commitment since 2007.
Labour’s justice spokesman ,Graeme Pearson, said: “It has taken six years for the SNP to deliver on their promise to end automatic early release.
“Tens of thousands of prisoners have been released early. Thousands of victims have heard one sentence handed out in court, only to be amazed to find that the sentence actually served was completely different to that handed down.
“I welcome the change. We need to look at the detail of how this will work and who will be covered by it.”
The Scottish Conservatives said given that the change would only apply to sex offenders sentenced to four years or more and violent criminals sentenced to ten years and over, the changes would only apply to 2 per cent of offenders given a custodial sentence last year. The Tories calculated 15,543 offenders given sentences of less than four years or longer for offences not considered violent crimes or sexual offences will still enjoy automatic early release.
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, said: “This is a welcome step following years of pressure from the Scottish Conservatives to tackle the scandal of early automatic release. But it does not go nearly far enough, and will still result in thousands of criminals being let out of prison automatically before they finish their sentence.”
And Phil Fairlie of the Prison Officers’ Association Scotland said his union would seek discussions with the Scottish Prison Service to see how the law change would affect conditions inside jail.
“The prison population has stabilised quite a bit over the last few months, but if there was going to be a significant increase in the prison population that would be an issue for us,” Mr Fairlie said.
The announcement was part of a statement, which had strong independence theme running through it. Mr Salmond, unsurprisingly, argued that decisions which affected Scotland were better made at Holyrood than Westminster.
“It is better for all of us if decision about Scotland’s future are taken by those who care most about Scotland – the people who choose to live and work here,” the First Minister said.
Opposition parties took a different view with Labour describing a “lacklustre” and “moribund” new legislative programme that had put Holyrood on “pause” in the run up to next year’s independence poll.
Salmond’s legislative plans for new term
• Legislation to merge Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland - This will create a new non-departmental public body (NDPB) to play a leading role in investigating, recording, caring for, protecting and celebrating Scotland’s historic environment, allowing partners, stakeholders, communities and individuals to contribute to these functions.
• Mental Health and Adults with Incapacity Bill - This aims to provide a much improved legislative system to help treat and care for people with a mental health disorders. The amendments will remove unnecessary procedures and make existing processes more efficient.
• Damages Bill - This aims to strengthen the support to those who have been damaged by others’ negligence. It will include provision to extend the limitation period which applies to actions for personal injury and enable courts to impose a periodical payment order instead of a lump sum award of damages, without the consent of the parties
• Food Standards Bill - This will establish a new body to take over all of the old functions of the Food Standards Agency, which was deprived of its responsibilities for nutrition and labelling by the UK government. Food Standards Scotland’s primary concern will be consumer protection – making sure that food is safe to eat, making sure it is what it says it is and improving diet and nutrition for consumers.
• Conclusion of Contracts Bill - This will make it easier for contracts to be agreed electronically, helping to ensure that Scotland is an attractive place to do business. It will reduce the cost of signing contract documents, increase the likelihood of contracts being governed by Scots law and therefore help boost cross-Border trade in particular.
• Bankruptcy Consolidation Bill - This represents the final stage of a legislative process providing rehabilitation to individuals and organisations in relation to their financial pressures. The bill will put bankruptcy legislation in one place in order to ensure that Scottish bankruptcy law is readable, accessible and easier for both practitioners and those effected by the law to use.
• Courts Reform Bill - This takes forward many of the recommendations made by Lord Gill, now the Lord President, in the Scottish Civil Courts Review. The reforms aim to make more efficient use of court resources and encourage earlier resolution of disputes to improve the public’s access to effective justice by ensuring the system delivers fairly, economically and promptly. Many civil cases, including personal injury cases, will be redistributed from the Court of Session to the sheriff courts and the new personal injury court, freeing up the Court of Session to deal with its remaining civil caseload more efficiently. The new summary sheriffs will relieve sheriffs of some of the work, freeing up sheriffs to concentrate on complex civil cases and solemn crime.
• Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill - This bill would make it easier for communities to take over public-sector assets that are not used or underused and to help communities deal more effectively with vacant and derelict property in their areas.
• Licensing Bill - This will introduce a new licensing system for air weapons, create a new offence of supplying alcohol to under 18s and extent powers for local authorities in areas such as the regulation of metal dealers – to tackle metal theft.
• Housing Bill - This bill will protect consumers by creating a new Housing Tribunal which will ensure effective and prompt resolution of disputes in the private-rented sector. In addition, by ending all right-to-buy entitlements for social housing tenants, the government will protect the existing stock of social rent homes, enabling social landlords to help the many people in need of social housing. This will prevent the sale of up to 15,500 houses over the next ten years.
• Budget Bill - Provides parliamentary approval for the Scottish Government’s spending plans. The draft budget will be introduced in September and subject to scrutiny by parliamentary committees.
• Revenue Scotland and Tax Powers Bill - The Scotland Act 2012 provided powers to enable the Scottish Parliament to introduce two devolved taxes, replacing their UK equivalents – and also to enable further taxes to be devolved or introduced in future without the need for primary legislation at Westminster. The bill provides for the establishment of Revenue Scotland as the tax authority which will be responsible for collecting the two new devolved taxes and any other taxes which may be devolved or introduced in future.
• Scottish Welfare Fund - The Scottish Government says this has been introduced to protect the vulnerable from the impact of the UK coalition’s welfare reforms. It includes maximising the opportunities offered by the new Scottish Welfare Fund to strengthen links to other local services and provide a better service to those who need help most. Topped up by £9.2 million to give a total of £33m in 2013-14, the new fund will allow the government to award an additional 5,600 Community Care Grants and an additional 100,000 Crisis Grants.
• Plus Ending of automatic release for serious criminals This is to be introduced through a Stage 2 amendment to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill, which is currently going through parliament, in early 2014. It will end automatic early release for prisoners sentenced after the legislative provisions are brought into force.
Eddie Barnes: Elephant in the room takes centre stage in all but name
Alex Salmond unveiled a dozen new bills for the Scottish Parliament to consider.
They included a law to merge Historic Scotland with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland.
This particular tidying up exercise was not going to get them dancing on the streets, Johann Lamont remarked in response.
But then the First Minister’s Programme for Government statement was not really about laws at all.
The elephant in the room – in the form of the independence referendum – was front and centre.
The First Minister indicated as much from his first words, beginning his statement with what has now become the pro-independence side’s first commandment.
This is that “it is better for all of us if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by those who care most about Scotland – the people who choose to live and work here”.
Mr Salmond’s statement then set out the key political narrative for his next 12 months.
The devolved parliament has reflected the country’s values better than Westminster over the last 14 years, he declared. So vote Yes, and let it take control over all the rest.
This is the argument that sees devolution not as a success in itself, but as a warm-up act for the main event.
As a consequence of this political campaigning, Scotland is “on hold”, remarked both Ms Lamont and Ruth Davidson afterwards.
The thinness of Mr Salmond’s law-making plans helped to make their point.
And with the exception of on-going plans to introduce gay marriage, there does not appear to be much over the next year which will distract lawmakers at Holyrood from getting on with the political dogfight.
Mr Salmond said over the summer that the campaign was still in its phoney-war stage.
But, in the absence of much else, it now looks like the real contest has begun.