Community sentences are “hugely valuable” and help reduce reoffending, Humza Yousaf said on his first visit to such a scheme in his role as Justice Secretary.
Mr Yousaf visited Mayfield Public Park in Midlothian, where a group of offenders have been carrying out unpaid work to create a community garden on a disused former bowling green and improve the bowling pavilion for public use as part of their Community Payback Order (CP0).
Concerns have been raised about the number of crimes committed by those on community sentences or out on licence but Mr Yousaf said “serious incidents” make up only a very small percentage of incidents.
Around six million hours of unpaid work have been carried out since 2011 and Mr Yousaf said the shift to greater use of community sentences has contributed to a 19-year low in the reconviction rate in Scotland.
Next year, the Scottish Government will extend the presumption against short prison sentences to 12 months in a drive to further reduce reoffending and keep crime down.
Mr Yousaf described CPOs as “hugely valuable” and said: “I often see the empirical data and the evidence that demonstrates that somebody on a short custodial sentence is going to reoffend twice as often as somebody on a community payback order so the empirical data is very strong but actually coming to a project like this and seeing the work that they are doing in relation to CPOs to and talking to the individuals who are benefiting from it gives me a whole different experience.”
Figures released by the Care Inspectorate last week showed the number of “serious incidents” committed by people on community supervision or on licence between February 2015 and December 2017.
During that period it recorded 16 murders, 15 attempted murders, 49 sexual offences, 60 serious assaults, three abductions, one terrorism offence and one involving possession of a firearm.
Mr Yousaf said: “The vast majority of community payback orders are completed successfully.
“On top of that what we’d also say is that when we looked at the serious incidents in community justice social work, serious incidents only make up around 1% of all of those on a community sentence.
“We have to always look to see where we can improve but I’m always driven by the data, by the smart justice argument that shows that community payback orders are much more effective at reducing reoffending than, for example, short custodial sentences.
“If we want to have less victims of crime then one big part of that of course is by reducing reoffending, so the evidence speaks for itself.
“Where improvements can be made, we have to make them , we should continue to do that, but the evidence very much speaks for itself.”
Mr Yousaf was joined by the Solicitor General Alison Di Rollo QC on the visit on Monday.
The Scottish Government said CPOs are a robust sentencing option focused on paying back to the community and addressing the underlying causes of offending.
Sharon Hill, development worker at Mayfield and Easthouses Development Trust (MAEDT) which manages the bowling green and pavilion, said the work done by the CPO team has made a huge difference to the project.
She said: “They have given us a year of time, if they had not been involved it would be a year before we get to the stage we are at now.
“They have really really advanced the project.”