Early release fears prompt moves for minimum prison terms
JUDGES will be forced to set minimum prison sentences for criminals serving more than a year under proposals to end the controversial automatic early release of prisoners.
The Sentencing Commission for Scotland announced the recommendations in a report published today following growing concerns about early release.
The commission said that offenders sentenced to more than 12 months should serve a minimum term fixed by the courts.
After that most would then serve a further part of their sentence in the community.
The long-awaited report also suggests electronic tagging for offenders serving less than 12 months but only after at least half that sentence has been completed. At the moment all short-term prisoners are automatically freed at the halfway point of their jail term if it is more than six months - in most cases without conditions.
Long-term prisoners - those sentenced to four years or more apart from those serving life terms - must also be considered for early release by the parole board at the same time.
Critics have called for the automatic early release system to be scrapped.
Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson today admitted that the system was "confusing and discredited in the public's eye" and welcomed the new proposals.
Ministers will now consider the commission's recommendations and publish their proposals in the late Spring - ahead of the introduction of a Sentencing Bill later this year.
The Executive set up the Sentencing Commission back in 2003 after ministers identified the issue of the automatic early release of prisoners as one of its priorities.
The report proposes that prisoners serving more than a year can finish part of their sentence in the community once a minimum period is over. But their release at the end of the custodial part would depend on a risk assessment.
It also suggests that those passing sentence should be required to explain the effect of the sentence. The commission believe that "no doubt" should be left over the minimum time to be served in custody and that which may be served in the community.
SNP justice spokesman Kenny MacAskill said the commission's recommendations must now be implemented. "Transparency is essential ... what we need now is the implementation of the commission's recommendations but they need to be matched by resources from the Executive."
Lord Macfadyen, the commission's chairman, said the package of proposed reforms represented an opportunity to bring much-needed clarity and transparency in sentencing.
But he warned that the proposals were not intended to increase the severity of sentencing and should not be regarded as a "back door" opportunity to make Scotland a more penal society.
He said: "In short, our recommendations are designed to put forward a system in which the sentences imposed by the courts will mean what they say."
Tory justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: "These recommendations are moving towards more transparency in sentencing ... a sentence of fours years should mean someone serves four years."
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