Ruth Davidson: The deadly price of the SNP's criminal justice policies

Violent offenders are being set free to kill and maim innocent people and that must end, writes Ruth Davidson.
Members of Craig McLellands grieving family leaving the High Court at Livingston after seeing his killer jailed for life. (Picture: Vic Rodrick)Members of Craig McLellands grieving family leaving the High Court at Livingston after seeing his killer jailed for life. (Picture: Vic Rodrick)
Members of Craig McLellands grieving family leaving the High Court at Livingston after seeing his killer jailed for life. (Picture: Vic Rodrick)

Craig McClelland was a talented young father of three who had the world in front of him. Last summer, near his home in Paisley, he was stopped on the street by a man asking for a light. Unprovoked, the man, James Wright, suddenly pulled a knife and stabbed him twice. Craig managed to call an ambulance and begged the paramedics not to let him die – but they were unable to save him.

As he was sentenced to 20 years for murder, it emerged that, at the time of the killing, Wright had been “unlawfully at large”. He had been released early from jail following a previous conviction for carrying a sharp implement and tagged under the Scottish Government’s home detention scheme. Within 11 days, he had broken the terms of his curfew by trying to tamper with his tag. Instead of wandering the streets of Paisley with a knife, he should have been back in jail.

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This week, it was the turn of Craig’s heartbroken partner, Stacey, to speak of the appalling failure of our justice system to protect law-abiding people in Scotland. There was a weary familiarity to her comments which is itself shocking – because we have been here so many times before.

Last summer, convicted killer Robbie McIntosh attacked a woman in Dundee with a dumbbell – just days after being released early from a previous conviction for murder.

A few months before, in April, double rapist Fraser Summers – also released early from prison – was put back in jail for the assault of a young woman.

Three years before that, 51-year-old Isabelle Sanders was murdered by 19-year-old Paul McManus – just six weeks after he had been released early from jail for criminal behaviour.

There are many more examples. It begs the question: is it any wonder that people are losing faith in a justice system which seems entirely tilted against the victim?

That question has been picked up recently by investigative journalist Russell Findlay in his new book “Acid Attack”.

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After a career in Glasgow bravely exposing some of Scotland’s most dangerous organised criminals, Russell opened his door just before Christmas in 2015 and had acid flung in his face by a local gangster called William Burns.

In his book on the incident, Russell recounts the case history of his assailant. Burns had first been jailed in 2001 for 15 years for shooting an unarmed female security guard. He had then been released after 10 years on licence. He soon broke the terms of that license and was sent back to jail, only then to be released again, all before the end of his original term. A few weeks later, he turned up on Russell’s front door with intent to kill.

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Shockingly, none of what Russell describes as “yo-yo” justice was carried out transparently – it was only thanks to journalists investigating that Burns’ case history ever came to light.

Of course, the rehabilitation of criminals is a vital part of the justice system. That is why we have parole and home detention. The aim is to ensure that criminals are reintegrated with their communities so we avoid the kind of revolving door that sees criminals returning to jail over and over again, having grown accustomed to a life of crime.

But the balance in Scotland is wrong. As in so many areas of our public life, a cosy consensus has been allowed to develop which sees transparency and reform as a threat. Simply put, we need to rebalance the justice system so it starts to respect the needs and wishes of victims more.

So today, the Scottish Conservatives are publishing fresh ideas on the parole system. Privately, lawyers engaged in the Scottish Parole Board acknowledge that the system needs to be made more transparent. It is time for the SNP Government to get on with it.

To take one example, in many other jurisdictions, victims are able to attend parole hearings so their voices are heard when decisions are being made.

Yet in Scotland, they cannot. The best they can hope for is that parole board members take the time to interview them as part of their decision. It’s not enough, and it needs to change. And we need to see greater clarity about why decisions are made.

South of the border, the parole system is being reviewed following the scandalous decision to release the serial rapist and taxi driver John Worboys on parole – a decision later overturned following a judicial review.

The aim is for victims to get greater detail on how and why decisions have been reached, not just – as in Scotland – about when they take place.

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Doesn’t the victim of a crime deserve to know why the parole board has chosen to release somebody who attacked them or sexually abused them? I think they do.

So let’s see a similar willingness to examine reform in Scotland too. A restricted review of Scotland’s parole system is going on, but the problem is that its scope is far too limited. So let’s open it up.

The Scottish Parliament was set up to take on board the concerns of ordinary voters and respond to their concerns.

Too often, it only represents the interests of producers and vested interests who want to keep things as they are.

It’s quite clear that – with every new high profile case, like the killing of Craig McClelland – people have a little less faith in our justice system.

I don’t blame them for that. It is time for a change. We need to act, now.