Automatic early release to be abolished
THE current practice of automatically releasing prisoners half-way through their sentences will be scrapped under proposals published by a powerful independent body yesterday.
The Scottish Sentencing Commission said it wanted to make sure that criminals were imprisoned for the length of time decided by the court and not released automatically part of the way through their sentence.
Lord Macfadyen, a High Court judge who chaired the commission, said sentencing should be clearer and easier to understand and that prison terms should be specified at the end of a court case and adhered to.
He said: "As our consultation showed, the public, including victims of crime and their families, the media and some criminal justice practitioners find it difficult to comprehend some of the existing statutory provisions and their practical effect.
"In short, our recommendations are designed to put forward a system in which the sentences proposed by the courts will mean what they say."
The commission's recommendations will now be studied by ministers who will use them as the basis for the Executive's Sentencing Bill, which is due to be unveiled later this year.
Lord Macfadyen's team was asked to look at the Scottish sentencing regime following increasing public anger over the early release of prisoners, some of whom have gone on to commit crimes after being let out of jail early.
At the moment, prisoners serving less than four-year sentences are let out of prison half- way through their sentences and those serving more than four years - except lifers - are let out after two-thirds of their prison sentence. The Sentencing Commission recommended that this system should be axed.
It said that, instead, those serving short sentences - of 12 months or less - should be given the chance of release after half their prison term, but only if they were not considered a danger to the public, and also on condition that they were tagged and placed under surveillance for the rest of their sentence.
For those on longer sentences, anything more than 12 months, the commission advocated a split sentence.
The first half of the sentence would have to be spent in jail with no chance of early release but the second half would be a "community" sentence.
This "community" half could involve the prisoner remaining in jail, if the prison service does not believe he or she should be released, but it could involve community service, electronic tagging or simply early release.
The commission also recommended that judges and sheriffs spell out clearly to the public, the offender and the media, exactly what each sentence means.
So someone being sentenced to an eight-year sentence would be told in the court that he or she would serve four years in jail, without the chance of early release during that time, followed by another four years in the community - but this would depend on good behaviour.
Under the plans, ministers would have the final say on whether prisoners will be released after the custodial part of their sentence.
The extra assessment that will be required of every prisoner, to find out whether they should be released, will place extra burdens on the prison service and the Scottish Executive, which may need extra staff.
An Executive spokesman said this was one of the factors they would consider over the next three months before deciding what to do about the recommendations.
However, given that the commission was set up by the Executive to inform the Sentencing Bill, it would be surprising if Cathy Jamieson, the justice minister, did not accept the recommendations in full.
Lord Macfadyen also acknowledged that the prison population might increase as a result of the tougher sentencing regime, but he said he hoped judges and sheriffs would use their judgment and impose similar total sentences to those being handed down at the moment.
Clive Fairweather, the former chief inspector of prisons, said the proposals represented the right approach.
He said: "I think the current system of getting a half or a third off sentences is totally confusing and it's high time we reviewed it. The thrust of these new proposals is that people should earn their time off and that seems right."
Mr Fairweather added: "The likely increase in the prison population is not something we should flinch from and there may have to be a small increase in staff, but we are talking about the more efficient use of jail and that is a good thing."
Annabel Goldie, Scottish Tory leader, welcomed the proposals but said they should have been adopted years ago and it was now up to the Executive to act on the commission's proposals.
Kenny MacAskill, for the SNP, said: "Of course, theory is one thing and practice is another. The commission's good work and sensible advice will come to nothing if it is not backed up by adequate resources."
Commission's main proposals
THE main recommendations of the Sentencing Commission are:
End the automatic early release of prisoners.
At the moment, those serving short sentences - four years or less - are released after half their sentence.
Those on longer sentences are released either after half or two-thirds of their sentence.
The commission recommended that those serving 12 months or less be eligible for release after half their sentence, but only after assessment, and could be released into the community, but only if electronically tagged.
It recommended that those serving sentences of longer than a year be given a two-part sentence; the first half would be "custodial" with no chance of early release, and the second part "community".
This community part could take the form of community service, electronic tagging, simple release into the community or an extension of a prison term, if the prisoner was deemed to be a danger to the public.
Ministers should be given the power to decide on the release and the release conditions for longer-term prisoners.
Judges and sheriffs should be aware of the possibility that sentence lengths may increase dramatically under the new system, so that they should be careful to set sentences which are roughly the same as under the current system.
Sent home from jail only to reoffend
ONLY last week, the courts heard yet another example of a prisoner being released early and then committing a further offence.
Kenneth Woods, 36, of Greenock, had been given a 16-year sentence in 1996 for torturing and attempting to murder a woman. He served just over nine years and, within months of being paroled, he was caught with cocaine worth 2,275 and convicted of being concerned in supplying the drug.
A judge could have ordered him to serve all of the unexpired portion of his original sentence - more than six years - but restricted the period to four years, after which Woods will begin his term for the drugs offence.
In another case, Brendan Reilly, 19, of Port Glasgow, was released from a young offenders' institution on 2 July last year after serving half of a four-month sentence for possessing a knife.
Hours later, he stabbed and killed another youth, and he was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to detention for life and ordered to serve a minimum of 15 years.
In 1999, Derek Ferguson, 23, of Airdrie, was jailed for eight years for attempted murder. He was freed on licence two-thirds into the term and five months later murdered a teenager by stabbing him in the back. He was jailed for life and will serve a minimum of 18 years.
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