Tom Halpin: Stop turning prison gates into revolving doors

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It is a very old joke, of course, when the rain-lashed tourist stumbles into a village shop in the Highlands and asks for directions to Inverness. After sucking his teeth for a few minutes, the ancient shopkeeper regretfully replies: “Well, sir, I wouldn’t start from here.”

The problem is, of course, that we have to start somewhere and, when it comes to Scotland’s prisons, we need to start on the other side of the gates, in Scotland’s communities.

David Strang, the chief inspector of prisons, was making that point this week when he called for jail terms of less than a year to be scrapped. The evidence, he said, could not be clearer. Short sentences do not reduce crime and more than half of those released from these sentences will be reconvicted – and back inside – within a year. Mr Strang could have said, but didn’t, that if we continue sending criminals to jail for a few months at a time, it might be easier to replace prison gates with revolving doors.

Of course, critics will brand any reduction, never mind abolition, of short sentences as soft-touch justice but on the simplest, most basic level they are not working, not for those serving them and not for the rest of us. Many of those in our prisons are not being rehabilitated or deterred from reoffending. Loss of freedom is a punishment, of course, but many of these men and women have been in jail so often that it feels less like a punishment than an inconvenience.

One young woman, for example, told us that she had deliberately reoffended so she could spend Christmas with her mother and aunt in Cornton Vale. For her family and too many others, prison is no threat. It is no short, sharp shock. Sometimes, in fact, the grinding routines of incarceration are not only familiar but a welcome respite from the chaos of their lives outside.

The reality is that for very many of those streaming through our courts again and again, jail is the soft touch. The easiest option, when the prison gates swing open, is for them to return to chaos, return to drugs or drink, return to crime, and, very quickly, return to jail.

The hardest option is to find a new way of living and here too, the evidence could not be clearer. Community justice services, like those provided by Sacro, provide practical, effective support to help those offending and former prisoners find a firmer foothold in life, escape addiction, improve their physical and mental health, keep their family together, and ensure their children do not make their mistakes.

Of course, most of those sent to jail have had the opportunity to stay free. They will, almost always, have been given many chances and spurned them. Indeed, some will have failed to complete previous community-based sentences. That is not, however, an argument against community justice services. It is an argument for the best of them – those most effectively bringing order to chaotic lives blighted by addiction, poverty, mental health issues and crime – to be identified, strengthened and expanded.

In this debate around sentencing, that – a clear-eyed and stringent focus on what will best reduce crime in our communities – can be the only place to start.

Tom Halpin is Chief Executive of Sacro