More crime - but record number of offenders spared jail terms

THE use of tagging orders, probation and other community punishments has outstripped prison sentences for the first time, new figures reveal.

Some 16,952 offenders were given community service, probation or other non-custodial sentences in 2004/5 - up 9 per cent on the previous year's 15,557. The number sent to prison or a young offenders' institution rose marginally from 16,503 in 2003/4 to 16,531 last year.

The figures revealed the number of people convicted of crimes in Scotland rose for the sixth year. Nearly 134,500 people were convicted, 1 per cent up on the previous year.

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A massive leap in the number of people allowed into the community with an electronic tag, under a Restriction of Liberty Order (RLO), was shown in the Scottish Executive statistics - sparking a political row as opposition politicians claimed ministers were using community sentences to "empty our jails".

RLOs - which are used to restrict the movement of offenders - were issued to 1,310 people in 2004/5, up 25 per cent on the previous year's 1,048 and more than ten times the number when they were introduced in 1998/9.

Tagged offenders included 24 convicted of serious assault or attempted murder. A further 213 people guilty of such offences were given a community service order and 169 were fined.

The Tories said confidence in the justice system was "in pieces", damaged by cases such as that of tagged Glasgow teenager Callum Evans who murdered neighbour John Hatfield outside his flat when he should have been confined to his home.

Speaking at First Minister's Question Time, Tory leader Annabel Goldie said: "No wonder public confidence in the criminal justice system is in pieces, because, while the criminals gloat, the public is aghast.

"When so many dangerous criminals never go to jail, how can the Executive even begin to protect the law-abiding majority in Scotland?"

First Minister Jack McConnell insisted it was for the courts - "qualified judges and sheriffs" - to impose individual sentences.

But he added: "We also expect those courts to ensure that anyone who is dangerous, and who has been convicted of a dangerous crime in particular, is locked away to protect the public.

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"But the court has a duty to make a judgment in each individual case about the sentence that is imposed."

He denied the Executive was "emptying" jails and insisted Scotland's prison population had reached record levels.

Mr McConnell conceded that "the nature of sentencing" was changing for some types of offenders, particularly younger ones, who would previously have been sent to jail for a short period - with consequent access to more serious criminals.

"All of the evidence shows that they would have been more likely to have been led into a whole life of crime," he argued.

"Those individuals are getting tougher sentences in the community that force them to address their offending and make them less likely to reoffend in the longer term.

"That is exactly the right policy and the combination of the two shows that the number of convictions in Scotland is significantly higher today than it was over recent years, and that those sentences, I think, are being more effective as a result."

Agencies trying to stop criminals offending said the growth in non-custodial sentences was due to a realisation among sheriffs and judges that sending many criminals to prison, particularly those with drug and alcohol problems, made them more likely to commit more crime.

Aiden McCorry, depute director of Apex Scotland, which works with offenders, said: "There is a general awareness now that prison isn't working, particularly for those convicted of relatively minor offences.

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"But community sentences are increasingly not a soft option. Because of the chaotic lifestyles led by people who end up in our courts, community sentences can be more demanding due to the responsibilities placed on the offender to turn up for appointments and comply with the terms of orders.

"Life in prison is much more regulated and for some people can be an easier option."

He cited the use and success of dedicated drugs courts, where sheriffs, supported by social and medical services, are able to provide "tailor-made" sentences, including treatment, to address the cause of criminal behaviour. They showed community sentences could be more effective than prison, said Mr McCorry.

Yesterday's figures, in the annual Criminal Proceedings in Scottish Courts Bulletin, showed two-thirds of the convictions, or 87,048, were for offences such as murder, rape and common assault. These included 113 for murder and 1,338 for attempted murder, a drop of 3 per cent and 7 per cent respectively on the year before. Convictions for serious assault were down 7 per cent.

But there were double-digit year-on-year percentage rises in convictions for offences such as rape and attempted rape, indecency, fire-raising, having offensive weapons and assault.

Males accounted for 84 per cent of convictions in 2004/5 and the most common age of offenders was 18.

Tagged criminals on the streets unnoticed

SCORES of tagged criminals in Scotland are able to leave their homes without the authorities ever knowing, The Scotsman has learned.

The monitoring company Serco last night admitted the technology used for tagging - which is intended to ensure an offender does not leave their home at certain times of the day - is not always capable of identifying when someone walks out of their front door.

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Some offenders would even be able to break into their neighbour's house without triggering an alarm.

Serco took over the monitoring of about 450 people with restriction of liberty orders (RLOs) at the start of the month.

Yesterday, the Scottish Executive revealed that human error was to blame for a tagging blunder surrounding Callum Evans, 18, who left his Glasgow home and murdered a neighbour.

The tag was wrongly set to go off at "medium" range, enabling Evans to leave the flat undetected. The tag should have been set at "short".

The tag "communicates" via radio waves with a transmitter connected to the subject's phoneline.

The equipment is set so that the offender is free to move anywhere in their home, but the movement radius can include neighbouring properties.

A former surveillance officer said: "I've seen cases where a tagged person has gone to their neighbour's house to watch the football, and the alarm didn't go off."

A spokesman for Serco said: "Due to the nature of the technology, using radio frequency signals, it is not possible to restrict the signals to the physical walls of the restriction address."

Weapons offences double in ten years

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THE scale of Scotland's culture of violence was exposed yesterday by new figures revealing the number of people convicted for carrying offensive weapons has nearly doubled in a decade.

In 2004/05, some 3,444 offenders were convicted for carrying a knife, sword, baseball bat or other offensive weapon - compared with 1,867 in 1995/96.

The figure represented a one-fifth leap from the previous year's total of 2,875.

The Scottish Executive yesterday said the growth was an indication that police were cracking down more effectively on the crime.

A spokesman said: "The increase is a sign of the greater enforcement activity, helping to clamp down on the booze and blade culture in parts of Scotland. We hope to make more young men question why they carry blades in the first place."

The Violence Reduction Unit, based in Glasgow, is spearheading a string of initiatives to curb, and ultimately reverse, the tide of weapons being carried on Scotland's streets.

These include fast-tracking knife cases in the Glasgow area, where most knife offences take place.