David Strang backed Scottish Government plans to introduce a presumption against sentences of under 12 months, but said there was a “lot of work to do” to help improve rehabilitation for those already behind bars.
Publishing his annual report yesterday, Mr Strang said Scotland had “much to be proud of”, particularly when compared with prisons in England and Wales, which have been beset by problems in recent months.
But he said too many people are being held on remand – almost 15 per cent of Scotland’s 7,500-strong prison population are on remand.
Earlier this year, the Scottish Government published plans to introduce a presumption against sentence of 12 months or less, with evidence suggesting community-based alternatives are more effective at reducing re-offending.
Mr Strang, a former chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, said the move would eventually help to reduce the overall number of those in prison.
He said: “We know that sending people to prison doesn’t act as a deterrent, otherwise people wouldn’t keep going round and round in the system.
“The re-conviction rates are high for people who have served short sentences.
“If the community alternatives can be geared to help people stay in employment or teach them new skills, they’re less likely to re-offend.
“All the evidence is that with a community order, people are less likely to offend – that should help reduce crime and the number of people going back into prisons.”
Mr Strang said that despite reductions in the prison population, the number of Scots being jailed remained high.
He added: “We imprison more than 50 per cent above the European average and our crime rates don’t warrant that.
“People with mental health problems and addictions are being given short sentences when they really need alternative treatment to what’s provided in prison.”
Mr Strang said prisoners often faced lengthy waits for programmes to be completed in order to be eligible for parole, such as anger management training.
And he said those leaving prison with nothing more than a £58 liberation grant needed more help re-adjusting to life in the community.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Ministers have made clear they want to see fewer ineffective short-term prison sentences and greater use of robust community sentences.
“At the same time, we are committed to reducing the inappropriate use of remand, providing £1.5 million of funding to local authorities over the past two years to improve the provision of bail support services for women.”