Liam Kerr: Community sentences not a '˜get out of jail free' card

While our justice system should protect the public, punish, deter and rehabilitate criminals, crucially, it must also provide some kind some resolution for victims and their families, regardless of the severity of the crime.

Liam Kerr - Conservative - North East
May 2016. Pic - Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
Liam Kerr - Conservative - North East May 2016. Pic - Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

Arguably, in recent years, these have become competing goals with a balance failing to be struck, with the rights and needs of the criminal seemingly prioritised over the victim’s.

It seems obvious that serious crimes dictate a prison sentence (although arguably the SNP’s presumption against 12 month sentences suggests otherwise) but for ‘less’ serious crimes, at what point should we consider a community based approach sufficient and that the need for both punishment and rehabilitation has been met? In order for victims to rebuild their lives they should feel that the justice system has recognised their loss and that it has been compensated for; that the scales of justice have been re-balanced.

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If victims do not feel that justice has been done, that their suffering has been recognised and “valued”, their loss of faith in our justice system can be total.

That has an impact on them, their families, and the cohesion of their communities.

And there is a social side to this: last year, just over 1 per cent of the population suffered two-thirds of all violent crime. These are Scotland’s poorest communities which see anti-social behaviour, drug abuse and violence.

It is crucial that victims see that the perpetrator is punished.

Yet community sentences appear to be, and according to the Scottish Government narrative are, weighted towards rehabilitation.

A third of community sentences aren’t completed, criminals wait months to start them and that over half of drug testing and treatment orders aren’t completed.

If community sentences are a ‘punishment’ then they must be rigorous, punitive and rehabilitative. And they must start quickly to avoid breaking the link between the crime and the punishment/rehabilitation.

Prison can offer both the rehabilitative element as well as a punishment. To ‘work’, imprisoned criminals must have access to meaningful activity: education, training or work, designed in such a way that they actually benefit from these activities and, perhaps, get qualifications.

So the Scottish Conservatives have been calling for a review of sentencing so that criminals receive appropriate punishment, and that the SNP’s cuts to purposeful activity are reversed to ensure that this important time is rehabilitative.

We also want to see that community sentences are taken seriously, that they are far more rigorous and they are not seen as a ‘get out of jail free’ card, used by the Scottish Government simply to empty our prisons rather than to administer any genuine rehabilitative and/or punishment effect.

Anything less is an insult to victims. The balance of our justice system requires a realignment to acknowledge, understand and value the victim’s perspective and experience; an acknowledgement that their suffering compels action, and that this is the only way justice will be done and be seen to be done.

Victims must be at the centre of our justice system.

Liam Kerr, MSP Scottish Conservatives justice spokesman