Leader comment: Scrapping short prison sentences could make us safer

There is currently a 'presumption' against sentences of less than three months (Picture: PA)
There is currently a 'presumption' against sentences of less than three months (Picture: PA)
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Sending a criminal to prison sounds like a tough thing to do, the sort of step that will make them think twice and keep the rest of us safe.

Sending a criminal to prison sounds like a tough thing to do, the sort of step that will make them think twice and keep the rest of us safe.

So it is perhaps surprising to some that the Scottish Government and experts like Scotland’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, David Strang, want to get rid of sentences of less than a year in most cases.

For the Scottish Conservatives, it shows that the SNP are a “soft touch” on crime.

Afterall, many criminals seem undeterred by the alternatives to prison and don’t even to bother to pay fines, the party pointed out. According to official figures, 16 per cent of sheriff court penalties imposed over the last three years are still outstanding in what Tory justice spokesman Liam Kerr described as a “slap in the face to victims”.

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The problem with this argument is that more than half of the people jailed for less than a year re-offend within 12 months of their release. One reason behind that statistic is being sent to prison is a life-changing event which often comes with the loss of a job, a home and possibly family ties – all factors that can help people stay on the straight-and-narrow.

Instead, an inmate finds themselves in the company of professional criminals who are likely to offer another way of life outside the law. A few months inside also provides only a brief opportunity to attempt meaningful rehabilitation.

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So ultimately, this supposedly tough approach ends up producing more victims of crime. It also costs an average of £34,000 a year to keep someone locked up.

Short sentences, according to what appears to be a widespread consensus among experts, simply do not work, so we should at least give the alternatives a chance.

There will always be exceptions. For example, the actions of domestic abuser might not warrant more than a year in prison, but several months inside would allow their victim to re-establish a new life without fear of further attack.

While £5m is a lot of unpaid fines, no system is ever going to achieve a 100 per cent collection rate. And trying to collect money from a clientele including drugs addicts, people with borderline mental health problems, and those with barely enough to keep body and soul together is always going to be difficult. And, sometimes, it will be impossible – a fact occasionally accepted even by hardened sheriffs.