Prisons chief: scrap jail for under a year
THOUSANDS of criminals could escape jail under a radical proposal set out by the head of the country’s prison service, as the number of Scottish inmates reached a record high of more than 8,200.
Offenders given jail terms of one year or less should carry out community sentences instead, according to Scottish Prison Service (SPS) chief executive John Ewing.
The proposal was made in front of MSPs on Holyrood’s justice committee, who heard separate calls for those sentenced to up to two years to be exempt from jail time.
Mr Ewing’s call was branded “absurd” by opposition MSPs, who said ordinary Scots would be “horrified” at the idea.
The SNP government introduced a presumption against sentences of less than three months in an effort to stem the spiralling prison population. But it emerged yesterday that jail numbers had hit a new high of 8,242.
Mr Ewing said the focus should be on jailing offenders who need to be behind bars to “protect the public”.
“There are other opportunities in terms of community sentences that would deal more effectively with the number of offenders that we are currently locking up,” he said. “For the short term, in-and-out prisoner, I believe there are better alternatives available in the community to address the prisoner’s particular offending behaviour.”
When asked to define “short-term, in-and-out” inmates, Mr Ewing said: “It’s a crude estimate, but anyone who is sentenced to a sentence of about a year or less, which means they would probably be serving about six months in the prison.”
He said there had to be a “balance” between new prisons and alternatives to custody. “Building new prisons we don’t see as the way forward – we take the view that we should see a reduction in the number of offenders in Scotland’s prisons,” he said.
The SNP government pushed for a presumption against sentences of six months or less, but it was blocked by opposition parties at Holyrood under the previous minority SNP government and a compromise of three months was agreed.
There were 4,950 people jailed for between three months and six months in 2009-10 who would all avoid jail under the Mr Ewing’s plans. A further 3,498 were imprisoned for six months to two years.
Tom Halpin, chief executive of community justice organisation Sacro, went further yesterday, telling MSPs: “We would question the value of sentences less than two years, but there are pragmatic and realistic public reassurances there in terms of what are the alternatives to that, because if that’s not credible, then it’s not appropriate.
“Most certainly, the initial intention of six months being achievable is something that we still hold to quite strongly.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman insisted ministers were to stick with the existing policy. “Having acted in the last parliament – and secured a parliamentary majority to tackle the problem of ineffective very short prison sentences which was enacted then – ministers have no plans to revisit the existing presumption against these short sentences,” she said.
The squeeze on public spending means no more extra jails can realistically be built to accommodate a prison population that is predicted to rise to 9,500 by the end of the decade.
The next priority for the SPS will be to replace Glasgow’s Barlinnie jail. It is currently about 50 per cent over capacity, with 1,575 inmates in a building designed for 1,018.
Scotland’s inspector of prisons, Hugh Monro, added his voice in support of tackling problems with short-term prisoners, telling the committee that a forthcoming report into Barlinnie will show 70 per cent of inmates are not getting access to meaningful activity. “We’ve got to be looking at better ways of dealing with offenders and making sure they are dealt with in a much more constructive way before the issue gets out of hand,” he said.
But the prospect of inmates sentenced to a year avoiding prison completely was dismissed by Tory justice spokesman John Lamont, who is on the committee.
“The suggestion to seek alternatives to custodial sentences of up to a year is absurd and should not be considered any further,” he said. “We must provide a real deterrent to criminals and any jail sentence, no matter how short, must be considered in sentencing any individual.
“The judiciary must always retain the final say when it decides upon each case and it would be crass to take away any options that they might see fit.
“With the SNP’s soft touch on crime already getting out of hand, this ludicrous idea must be stopped in its tracks.”
Labour MSP Graeme Pearson was also concerned at any suggestion of extending the presumption against short sentences. He said: “You’ll find among many communities in Scotland horror at the prospect that someone who’s in chaotic behaviour would not be put in prison unless it was for a two-year sentence or more.”
The issue of prison overcrowding was raised two months ago after a report pointed to a long-term upward trend across Scotland.
A steady increase was seen between 2000-01 and 2010-11, when the population grew from a daily average of 6,182 to 7,853 – in a system designed to cope with about 7,330 prisoners.
The recent annual figure showed an average drop of 110 from a daily average high of 7,963 last year.
Mr Monro also set out concerns over the situation at Scotland’s only women’s prison, Cornton Vale. “What’s happening at Cornton Vale, in my view, is not good enough,” he said.
In his annual report, published earlier this month, he outlined concerns over progress at the jail in Stirling, which was inspected in January 2010 and again in a follow-up in February 2011.
Problems included overcrowding and “unacceptable” living conditions.
Liberal Democrat committee member Alison McInnes said progress there had been piecemeal, adding: “The major underlying structural problems with Cornton Vale have never been addressed.
“They’ve just been pushed to the side because of cost while we still see investment in other prisons around the estate.”
She was told by Mr Ewing that it would cost up to £12 million to sort out problems with the jail.
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