Chris Marshall: Why Tory Justice Minister wants to learn from SNP

Figures showing the number of reconvictions of released prisoners is at a 19-year low in Scotland are one of the reasons why Justice Minister Rory Stewart is seeking to learn lessons from Scotland about community sentencing, writes Chris Marshall.

Tory Justice Minister Rory Stewart. Picture: Getty Images

It’s a tough sell to pursue a liberal justice agenda while simultaneously appearing tough on crime.

Publishing its Programme for Government yesterday, the SNP continued with a subtle re-positioning that pledges to put victims and witnesses at the “heart” of the criminal justice system.

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The party has been rocked by a number of high-profile controversies which have undermined its reforms and allowed the Tories to accuse the nationalists of being a “soft touch”.

Chief among those was the murder of father-of-three Craig McClelland, 31, who was stabbed to death in Paisley last year by a man who had been “unlawfully at large” for five months.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, who took over from his predecessor Michael Matheson in June, has given an undertaking to Mr McClelland’s family that lessons will be learned from the case to prevent something similar happening in future.

Some may regard it is an anachronism then that a party which talks tough on crime should remain committed to a presumption against custodial sentences of less than 12 months. Critics argue the move allows those who have committed serious offences to avoid time in prison.

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But yesterday the Scottish Government signalled its intention to press on regardless, pledging to extend the presumption against short sentences once safeguards for domestic abuse victims are in force.

Opting against short sentences in all but the most serious of cases may not be a headline-grabbing vote-winner, but all the evidence shows it’s the right thing to do.

Both the former chief inspector of prisons, David Strang, and the head of the Scottish Prison Service, Colin McConnell, have spoken out against their effectiveness when it comes to rehabilitation.

Those views are borne out by statistics published yesterday which show those who receive a short prison sentence are twice as likely to re-offend as those who are given a Community Payback Order (CPO).

Overall, the number of re-convictions of all those released from prison or given a non-custodial sentence is at a 19-year low, with almost three-quarters not re-convicted within 12 months.But of those given a custodial sentence of less than a year, 51 per cent were re-convicted within a year and 35 per cent were back in prison 12 months later.

The reasons for why those given short sentences are more likely to re-offend are varied and complex, but often those who spend just a few months behind bars are unable to access the sort of services and interventions which help address patterns of offending in those with longer jail terms.

Nor should CPOs be seen as some sort of panacea, with yesterday’s figures showing that of 10,801 given the disposal in 2015/16, 30.8 per cent were reconvicted – two percentage points lower than the rate in 2014/15.

Despite this, all the evidence shows that the best way of reducing re-offending is to send fewer people to prison. While their counterparts north of the border are unlikely to ever endorse SNP justice policy, the Conservatives in England have done exactly that.

Justice minister Rory Stewart told the House of Commons earlier this year that his Government had a “lot to learn” from Scotland on the issue of community sentencing.

A tough sell it may be, but done right it is possible to have a criminal justice system which works for victims, while also rehabilitating offenders.