Karyn McCluskey, chief executive of Community Justice Scotland, said the preventative measures deployed during the Covid pandemic could equally be applied to justice as she also raised concerns about a move away from restorative justice in the Scottish system.
The former nurse and forensic psychologist said the pandemic approach was similar to that which helped see the Violence Reduction Unit slash the number of murders in Glasgow from 137 in 2005 to just 59 by 2018.
The agency – now known as the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) – was the former Strathclyde force’s public health approach to tackling all forms of violent behaviour.
Ms McCluskey said prior to the coronavirus pandemic few people outside the profession had given much consideration to public health, “but everybody knows about public health now”.
She added: “They know about surveillance, find out who’s infected, and how many people you’re dealing with, which is what we did with violence. Then you find out the risk and protective factors, so we all know about Covid now.
“And then you had to find out what worked, and that meant you had to do good parenting, identifying kids at risk, intervening with kids and young people and older people who were already affected. And then you scale it up nationally.
“If you think about the justice system like an infection, once you get infected once, it can become a chronic and life-limiting condition. Get infected again, and again, and again. So, getting people out at the earliest point in time, if that’s appropriate, is the right thing to do.
“Young people grow out of stuff, so trying not to put them through the system is the right thing to do.”
The VRU was set up to combat Glasgow’s rising murder rate in the early 2000s. The city had been dubbed ‘the murder capital of Europe’ and by 2005, Scotland as a whole had the second highest homicide rate in western Europe, with people were three times more likely to be killed than people living in England and Wales.
Ms McCluskey, who made the remarks in an interview with Scotland’s new justice and current affairs magazine 1919, also said she was concerned there was a lack of restorative justice in Scotland's system.
Government research has found that restorative justice provides an 85 per cent victim satisfaction rate and a 14 per cent reduction in the frequency of reoffending.
“We seem to have lost that in previous decades, that it’s preventative,” Ms McCluskey said. "We always seem to have the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.
"We’re great at responding, the same as emergency rooms, fantastic at dealing with results of trauma and whatever else, or dealing with people who have myocardial infarctions, and giving them statins, teaching them to eat healthy, is reducing that amount of people that are coming in having had heart attacks.
“Prisons should be for those you’re afraid of, not those you’re mad at.
"I’m a huge fan of restorative justice. And I sometimes think that restorative justice is missing in our communities. In fact, we’re charged with now trying to bring it back.”