Climbdown on prisoners' early release
DANGEROUS criminals will continue to be automatically freed from jail long before the end of their sentences, despite growing public anger at the controversial early release scheme.
Although the Scottish Executive faced demands to clamp down on the practice in the wake of the murder of Kriss Donald, Scotland on Sunday can reveal that ministers will continue the scheme.
The new law, to go before the Scottish Parliament, will say offenders must be released after three-quarters of their sentence, regardless of any danger they present to the public.
The shock move comes despite last week's revelation that the career criminal who led the gang that tortured and murdered 15-year-old Kriss had been released early from jail.
Jack McConnell is pressing ahead with the automatic release plan against the advice of the Sentencing Commission, which told ministers they should reserve the power to block early release of dangerous criminals.
Last night, a massive political row broke out over sentencing laws. Opposition politicians said they planned to bring forward an amendment to the bill that would prevent automatic early release. McConnell's critics said the policy was driven more by the need to cap Scotland's booming prison population than public safety.
Scotland's sentencing laws have been thrust back into the spotlight by the racist killing of Kriss, from Glasgow, who was abducted by an Asian gang, tortured, stabbed and set alight. Imran Shahid, the gang leader, and his two accomplices Zeeshan Shahid and Mohammed Faisal Mushtaq were jailed for a total of 70 years last week. It emerged Imran Shahid was only free to commit the crime after early release from a 30-month sentence for assault.
The current sentencing system allows short-term prisoners to be automatically released after half of their sentence, while those on longer sentences are allowed out after two-thirds. In the parliamentary chamber last week, McConnell described the system of automatic early release as "unacceptable".
Under the new, supposedly tougher system, criminals will serve at least half their sentence in jail and the rest under supervision in the community.
However, the small print of the bill reveals that all criminals - except those serving multiple sentences - must be released after three-quarters of their sentence. Neither ministers nor parole boards have any powers to block release.
Scotland may now end up with a weaker sentencing policy than in England. Home Secretary John Reid has proposed that Parole Board chiefs be given powers to keep dangerous offenders in jail throughout their prison term.
Last night, even human rights groups who represent prisoners' interests said dangerous criminals should be kept in jail for their full term, if it was in the public interest, despite prison overcrowding.
Robin McEwan, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "Either Jack McConnell doesn't understand the terms of his own bill or he is trying to pull the wool over people's eyes. The Sentencing Commission said that if people were still a risk then they should serve right to the end of their sentence. That part has been deleted. The Scottish Executive are frightened about the prison population."
Officials have defended the new scheme, arguing that the three-quarters release rule still meant prisoners were supervised in the community for the rest of their sentence.
But the Executive's policy is in marked contrast to the position of the Sentencing Commission, which ministers set up in 2003. The commission recommended that, in some cases, a prisoner should serve his entire sentence in jail.
They concluded: "The prisoner would only be released on licence at the end of the custodial term if the risk was judged to be acceptable. It would be possible, therefore, for a prisoner to be detained throughout the community part of the sentence if that risk was deemed unacceptable."
Scots Tory Chief Whip Bill Aitken MSP said: "Executive justice policy is predicated on one thing and one thing only: keeping people out of prison. Under this system, it is true that some offenders could conceivably spend more time in jail, but the early release provisions are still there and indeed in some instances, people will spend less time in custody and more in community sentences."
Bashir Ahmad, the SNP councillor for Pollokshields East, the area where Kriss Donald came from, said: "I'm absolutely dismayed by this. There are many sorry lessons to learn from the tragedy of Kriss Donald's murder, and one of them which we cannot understand is why his killer was released early.
"If a court says an offender should be jailed for one year, it should be one year. Violent criminals should be punished and the punishment should be hard. That is the way they will learn. It is going against the judgment of the court to release those people early."
However, a spokesman for the Scottish Executive said that capping a prison sentence at 75% allowed crucial rehabilitation work to take place in the community. He said: "We see the community element as an important part of dealing with reoffending and getting these people back on track."
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