Speaking publicly for the first time in his new role, David Strang – a former chief constable of Lothian and Borders and Dumfries and Galloway police forces – called for greater use of bail hostels and tagging for suspects awaiting trial.
Strang, who succeeded Brigadier Hugh Monro in the job in June, also told Scotland on Sunday that reducing prisoner numbers would make it easier to rehabilitate those who needed to be locked up.
Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons for Scotland’s views echoed the departing comments of Monro, who warned that a projected rise in prisoner numbers would lead to an increase in violence at jails. Monro backed a drastic cut in prisoner numbers from almost 8,000 at present to 5,000.
Strang said: “We send too many people to prison, particularly for short sentences.
“There are still hundreds of people in for less than six months. I know legislation changes meant a presumption against less than three months, but there are still people in the system for a very short time.”
The Scottish Government had hoped to create a presumption against six-month sentences, but in the end compromised on three months, following opposition from Scottish Labour and Conservative MSPs. Presumption against three-month sentences came into force in 2011.
However, in February this year it emerged that there were 10,665 prison terms of six months or less issued in 2011-12, just over 100 more than the previous year.
Despite having spent his career tackling criminals, Strang said his biggest concern is protecting victims, which is not always best achieved through jail terms.
“I understand the argument it provides respite for communities, but that’s about the only argument,” he said.
“Prison is a deterrent for those who have never been there. For those who go round and round the system it does not work as a deterrent.
“That’s why I support community punishments as a much more fruitful way of dealing with prisoners.
“Community punishments could still be improved, but they have improved greatly over recent years.”
Community payback orders – fines and an order to complete work for free – are used by judges and sheriffs as an alternative to custody.
But there are concerns about their effectiveness, with recent figures showing that of 7,763 orders issued by the courts, just 2,536 had been completed.
Strang is also concerned about the number of people remanded in custody while awaiting trial and wants bail hostels and tagging used more frequently as an alternative.
There are currently 1,271 people on remand in Scottish prisons, including 78 women.
“I suspect the courts move quite quickly to remand in custody, and they [bail hostels] are not universally available across Scotland – that’s a challenge for people providing the service,” Strang said.
“Tagging has not been explored as much as it could be. Certainly other countries use tagging more to monitor people.”
Graeme Pearson MSP, who is Labour’s justice spokesman and a former assistant chief constable, said: “David Strang is right in one sense – our prisons are overcrowded and, looking at official estimates, the situation is only going to get worse.
“There is increasing use of community punishments, and increasingly those convicted of a crime are not sent to prison. But it is vital that if community sentences are given they are carried out properly, swiftly and visibly. For too many, they are perceived as optional, less onerous and are carried out in a less than visible way.
“We need to have a proper discussion about how we properly punish and rehabilitate those who break the law and cause damage to our communities. Prison may not always be the right option, but for some it will be.”
The Scottish Government remains convinced of the effectiveness of community punishments, but declined to be drawn on greater use of bail hostels and tagging.
A spokeswoman said: “Compared to short prison sentences, re-offending rates for community sentences are much lower. That’s why we introduced a presumption against sentences of three months or less and their numbers have been steadily decreasing from 53 per cent of custodial sentences in 2006-7 to 28 per cent in 2011-12.
“While courts rightly retain final discretion on whether to impose a short sentence in individual cases, we want to see these decrease even more as they do not allow rehabilitation to take place and, on average, offenders imprisoned for three months or less are reconvicted three times as often as those who receive unpaid work.”
She added: “In relation to bail and remand, such decisions are for the court, based on the circumstances of each case.
“The court is rightly independent of government, affording it the freedom to make impartial decisions based solely on fact and law.
“We will be consulting in the next few months on the development of the electronic monitoring service, and as part of that we will be seeking views about the possible use of this for individuals on bail.”