Scotland needs 'credible and consistent' alternatives to prison, says justice secretary

Scotland needs “credible and consistent” alternatives to custodial sentences to reduce the number of people being sent to prison, the justice secretary has said.

Keith Brown acknowledged that community justice alternatives could be improved, saying “we’ve got a job on our hands” to do that.

Speaking to the justice and social affairs magazine 1919, Mr Brown said reducing the number of people on remand would be a priority.

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SNP Justice Secretary Keith BrownSNP Justice Secretary Keith Brown
SNP Justice Secretary Keith Brown

MSPs have noted the number of remand prisoners has been growing since the start of the pandemic.

Between April 2020 and April 2021, the remand population in Scotland grew by 78 per cent.

Mr Brown told the magazine: “I think there’s relatively widespread agreement and it’s certainly true in the police as well, certainly the police that I’ve spoken to, that for some people prison is not the best place for them.

“If it’s an addiction that’s at the root of the issue or if there’s a mental health issue, there are often better ways to accommodate that person, and we’re trying to work our way through doing that in increasing extent.

“But also, in terms of community justice, we know that some of the community justice disposals are very effective, so the recidivism, the re-convictions, for those that have community justice settlements can be lower, are lower, than for the general prison population.

“So I think it’s finding the right solution for the right people and I think we have generally the support of the police in doing that.”

He continued: “There is a challenge as well, and it’s not a quick one, to make sure that the community justice options are more credible and consistent, so sometimes the courts might be reluctant to go down that road if they don’t think the community justice disposal is sufficient, so we’ve got a job on our hands, which we’re looking at just now.

“We’re currently reviewing the community justice strategy, and we want to improve that.”

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The Scottish Government is consulting on changing the bail and remand system to reduce short periods of imprisonment.

Mr Brown said: “There’s not a quicker fix than that, because we don’t have the power, quite rightly, in the Scottish Government, to change what the courts decide.

"If the courts decide to send somebody to prison, that’s what they’ve decided.

“But the bail and release proposals that we’ve got will seek to change the nature of remand such that it’s only in certain circumstances that it’s used. And if you’re somebody that’s on remand, it can be as disruptive to your life as somebody that’s put on a prison sentence."

Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Jamie Greene questioned Mr Brown’s views on community justice.

He said: “This is rich coming from an SNP justice secretary.

“It is astonishing to hear him talk up community sentencing, when it is his Government who have written off over a quarter of a million hours’ worth of community sentences.

“That has been an insult to the victims of crime across Scotland.

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“While Keith Brown promotes community sentences, his Government is trying to sneak through proposals to release criminals after they’ve served just a third of their prison sentence. Where’s the justice in that?”