Scottish justice system reforms will give victims a stronger voice and see fewer short prison sentences – Keith Brown MSP

Last week I set out a vision to transform Scotland’s justice sector that will inform a programme of work over the lifetime of this Parliament and beyond.
Prison can be less effective than community sentences for some crimes (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Prison can be less effective than community sentences for some crimes (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Prison can be less effective than community sentences for some crimes (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

This new strategy enshrines a number of key priorities – most notably making sure victims’ voices are heard.

It will also place women and children at the heart of service delivery and reassess the role that prisons and the use of imprisonment should play in a modern and progressive Scotland.

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These are big and – in some people’s eyes – controversial issues to grapple with. But it is only right we do. We must make tough calls now, to deliver effective justice.

It’s all too easy after crimes have occurred to call for more prisons to be built and tougher sentences – while remaining blithely ignorant of the victims created and the root causes of crime. My vision aims to bring a collaborative approach to addressing the issues we face as a society.

It’s a simple fact that prison will always be needed for the most serious offences.

But with evidence demonstrating community interventions are more effective than short prison sentences at reducing reoffending, this new strategic blueprint seeks to reduce the need for imprisonment through early intervention and providing greater access to community justice services.

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Why keep sentencing people to short periods in prison when we know that community sentences better address the fundamental causes behind the issue?

The plan enshrines a need for collaborative work across public services to improve outcomes for individuals, with a clear focus on prevention and early intervention. Actions we are taking forward include steps to ensure victims take a more prominent role in cases, experience fewer delays and are supported in their recovery.

A Victims’ Commissioner will be appointed and there will be increased use of pre-recorded evidence – technology successfully brought to the fore during the lockdown period which can have lasting benefits.

It also seeks to prioritise the experience of women and girls in the justice system.

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This government is committed to tackling behaviour that stems from systemic, deep-rooted women’s inequality, which leads to violent and abusive behaviour by men directed at women and girls, precisely because they are women and girls.

It’s also a truism that our systems and processes are archaic and were largely designed for men by men.

This vision seeks to strike at this inequality, by tackling societal attitudes of misogyny and gender inequality, while prioritising systemic changes to improve the experiences of women and children.

It builds on the recommendations of Lady Dorrian’s report on the management of sexual offences and aims to ensure women and survivors can have trust in the justice system.

It is also underpinned by a requirement for victims to be treated with empathy and kindness, for example by having them avoid the additional trauma of having to retell their stories.

I was extremely privileged to meet with staff from Victim Support Scotland’s Support For Families Bereaved by Crime service last week to learn about how the trauma-informed approach works in practice.

This is a service that is designed around people, understands their needs and continues to develop based on feedback from the families they work with. It provides vital support to families at the time that they need it most, having lost a loved one to crime.

This approach is central to the Scottish government’s work to improve the justice system for victims and witnesses, whether this is as part of our new justice vision, through the work of the victims’ taskforce or as part of individual projects such as reviewing communication throughout the system.

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In all of these areas, we are taking a collaborative approach, involving those with lived experience, justice agencies, support services and other organisations that victims, witnesses, and families may come into contact with.

Hearing victims’ voices is vital and we will expand our approaches to ensure effective justice and that victims are heard.

This includes progressing forms of justice which allow victims to take a prominent role in their cases. Changing the experiences of all victims within the justice system and supporting their journey in healing and recovery are central to this vision.

We will ensure cases are taken forward in the most appropriate setting, reforming our court structures and processes to better serve efficient justice, utilising digital technology to do so.

Restorative justice services will also be made available across Scotland by 2023. Ultimately, the aim of this bold new vision is to deliver just, safe, and resilient communities.

Transforming the way we view and deliver justice in Scotland will ensure we properly support the most vulnerable in our society, creating a fair system that fulfils and meets the human rights of all who use it.

I am determined to drive change and deliver better outcomes through our public services and strongly believe this new framework envisions the best way to do that.

We have a long and proud tradition of effective justice in Scotland, a reputation for which we should be justifiably proud.

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We have worked over many years to continue to strengthen and modernise the justice system, making improvements to ensure we are safer in our communities and have a system in which individuals and communities have trust.

With a new parliamentary term and against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, this vision takes a longer-term view, and while actions and delivery will not be easy, it is the right thing to do. Via this bold new blueprint, we can and will deliver justice services which meet our needs in a modern society.

Keith Brown is SNP MSP for Clackmannanshire and Dunblane and Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans

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