Leader comment: Alternatives to short term sentencing

What are short prison sentences intended to do? If they don't act as a deterrent, should we persist with them? And what would be the alternative to a custodial sentence?
What are the alternatives to short term sentencing? Picture: Ian Waldie/Getty ImagesWhat are the alternatives to short term sentencing? Picture: Ian Waldie/Getty Images
What are the alternatives to short term sentencing? Picture: Ian Waldie/Getty Images

David Strang, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, has called for an end to prison sentences of less than a year whenever possible. The reason? More than half re-offend within 12 months.

If nothing else, his remarks in an interview over the weekend should spark a searching debate on why they are not working and what other forms of punishment might be considered.

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At present there is enormous pressure on judges to impose short sentences. They address the immediate problem of protecting the public by removing criminals from the streets. And the popularity of short term sentencing reflects the persistent crisis of over-crowding in Scotland’s prisons. A quick “in and out” would seem to be the practical solution to the issues that confront our criminal justice system.

But the problem, as Chief Inspector Strang has highlighted, is that they do not work as a deterrent. The evidence is clear, he says, that if are seeking to reduce crime, don’t send people to prison for a short period: more than half of those released from a short sentence of less than 12 months are reconvicted within a year.

Mr Strang instead called for more fines or community payback orders so offenders could be “repairing some of the damage they’ve done”.

In 2010, a presumption against sentences of less than three months was introduced. This sought to make the court only pass a jail term of such length or less if no other appropriate action was available.

Community payback orders have the double benefit of giving a greater role for restitution in the punishment system and making offenders directly responsible for the damage – human and economic – they have caused.

However, they are often viewed as a soft option – both by the offender and the general public – as they do not deprive offenders of their liberty. And by not removing offenders from circulation they do not give the public the same degree of protection and reassurance that a period of confinement provides.

Modernisation of the prison estate must remain a priority. But greater attention could be paid on programmes aimed at behavioural reform, particularly for first time and youth offenders.