Leaders: Short is not sweet when it comes to prison sentences

There is nothing to gain from short prison sentences. Picture: TSPLThere is nothing to gain from short prison sentences. Picture: TSPL
There is nothing to gain from short prison sentences. Picture: TSPL
NEITHER society nor offenders gain from jail terms that offer no time for rehabilitation or even for meaningful punishment

Prisons don’t work is an age-old mantra from reformers, countered by those on the right who play on public fears about the need to be protected from criminals and for proper punishment.

However, there now appears to be a growing tide of opinion that, while prisons have their uses, they are totally counter-productive for some types of offenders, and for society.

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Support remains for incarcerating the most serious wrongdoers, who pose the greatest threat and for whom a long sentence offers the potential for rehabilitation.

However, a consensus is emerging that imposing short sentences simply creates a “revolving door” of re-offending followed by further jail terms. Instead, goes the argument, offenders should be given robustly-enforced community-based sentences.

This is not new wisdom. Eight years ago, a commission into the future of Scotland’s prisons under former First Minister Henry McLeish recommended a presumption against sentences of fewer than six months.

It found these provided no opportunity for rehabilitation, and were the cause rather the solution to persistent re-offending.

The commission stated: “We are expending on a prison system where offenders do life by instalments, and communities suffer from punishments that can offer no rehabilitation.”

A legal presumption was introduced by the SNP in 2010 against sentences of under three months unless a court considered there were no appropriate alternatives.

The Scottish Government’s current consultation offers the prospect of going far further, and Mr McLeish has already welcomed the possibility it offers of “more radical reform”.

He said: “Extending the existing presumption period could be of significant help to the prison service, provide more effective and appropriate help for those who are not a threat to society, and, with further investment in community alternatives, help cut re-offending.”

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The consultation includes the option of abolishing sentences of up to one year – and now a coalition of charities and local authorities, together with the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, has emerged to press for it.

That chimes with justice secretary Michael Matheson signalling the need for a braver and bolder approach than “ineffective” short sentences.

Such a move is counter-intuitive to most of us who believe that crimes should be punished, and that a denial of liberty is both a punishment and a deterrent. However, the truth is that short stretches behind bars neither deter nor end a cycle of criminality.

We have to collectively understand that community sentences are not “letting them get away with it”. but offer our best chance as a society to effectively tackle offending behaviour.

As Mr Matheson has said: “This isn’t about being ‘soft’ or ‘tough’. It is about being ‘smart’ and acting on the clear evidence in front of us.”

Time to acknowledge injustice

Hundreds of people were infected with hepatitis C and HIV through being given contaminated blood by the NHS in Scotland in the 1970s and 80s.

That was a big enough scandal on its own.

Then, last year, patients already angry at the way they had been treated were further enraged by the results of a six-year inquiry which was condemned as a whitewash.

Some went so far as to burn copies of the Penrose report, furious at its reluctance to apportion blame and for making a single recommendation, over testing.

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Further evidence of the shabby treatment of the victims and their families came yesterday when campaigners gave evidence to MSPs about their plight.

They underlined that better financial support was urgently needed, which would also help sufferers draw a line under the saga.

Bill Wright, of Haemophilia Scotland, said if victims had to fight for compensation, it could further extend their anguish for years.

A review group set up by the Scottish Government following the Penrose Inquiry recommended those who had been infected with HIV, or who had developed advanced hepatitis C, should get £27,000 a year.

That figure, the equivalent of the average Scottish salary, compares with the £15,000 they are currently offered.

Ministers have yet to decide whether to implement the proposals, but there is a clear injustice to be corrected here.

This is an opportunity for the most regrettable way so many people were treated to be at last officially acknowledged and rectified. We owe it to those who have endured so much for so long to be honourably recompensed.