We must rethink community sentences to tackle prison population - Tom Wood

Three different articles in one edition of The Scotsman caught my eye last week.
Scotland has a soaring prison population. Picture: PAScotland has a soaring prison population. Picture: PA
Scotland has a soaring prison population. Picture: PA

The first was the latest baleful report of Scotland’s high incarceration or “correctional rate”. Statistics show that 548 per 100,000 of our people are either in prison or on probation. Only Russia and Lithuania, hardly beacons of progressive penal policy, have higher rates while England and Wales imprison far fewer and Europe fewer still.

It is a familiar story with familiar responses – a criminologist called for an urgent review of penal policy and a Scottish Government spokesperson reassured us that “Bold Action” is being taken and substantial investment is being made. This is not a new problem of course – for many years we have struggled to reduce high incarceration rates linked in part to our unusually high number of serious offenders, attracting long sentences.

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The second article gave a clue to a new aspect of this phenomenon. It was a report of a 60-year-old man jailed for life for a long catalogue of serious sexual offences against young children dating back to 1975. There is no doubt that these historical cases are a triumph for our justice system – bringing such predators to book is important – but of course there is a cost. Not only does it add to our increasing total of long-term prisoners but, as they age, large parts of our prison estate are looking more like care homes than prisons. The significance of this change was confirmed by the Inspector of Prisons who recently warned that legacy sex offenders who were much older and required social care were being shoehorned into a system that was built for younger men. Like all wicked problems it is complicated. Not only are we locking up too many (mostly men), our prisons are overcrowded and in many cases unsuitable.

No-one can seriously suggest we reduce sentences imposed for serious or sexual crimes, historical or not. So if we are to reduce our prison population, it must be at the other end of the scale, the short sentences. This is not a revelation either. Justice secretaries of all stripes have struggled for years to reduce short sentences with limited success. Why? The answer is two-fold – the lack of appropriate community sentences and just as importantly the lack of credibility for such disposals, seen by many as a soft option, lacking a deterrent effect or punishment. Community sentences need re-thought if they are to win public confidence.

So what is to be done? The obvious answer is more cash, it is always the siren call but is it always the solution?

The third article I read in that same edition of The Scotsman was on a slightly different subject but with read-across. This was a report from the Audit General for Scotland on the cost benefit of the millions spent on treatment programmes for alcohol and drug users. The conclusion was that, while some progress had been made, the health of many people misusing substances had not improved despite large sums of money spent. We should thank heaven for Audit Scotland. Like an objective breath of fresh air they cut though the self praise and propaganda so prevalent in our public life today. But if money is not always the answer what is? Long-term new thinking, courage and political leadership are all required to address our prison issues and not unrelated alcohol and drug problems. Money can’t buy these qualities.

l Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable