The Scottish Government has been accused of operating a “soft touch” justice system after it announced new proposals to scrap short jail sentences and replace them with fines and community-based punishments.
The Conservatives warned that house-breakers and those guilty of common assault or handling offensive weapons would escape prison as a result of the plans.
A document published by Justice Secretary Michael Matheson is looking at reviewing sentencing policy.
The Scottish Government already has a presumption against sentences of three months or less. Mr Matheson is now looking at new options including extending the presumption to six, nine or 12 months.
Also under examination is a more radical proposal to look at whether certain types of offence should never be considered for a custodial sentence.
A statement issued by the Scottish Conservatives said the SNP Government was advocating a “soft touch” approach and quoted the latest official figures showing that more than 5,000 people were jailed for between three and six months last year.
The Tories argued that if the new plans were adopted, they would be excused a jail sentence. The 5,000 criminals included 874 common assaults, 184 drug crimes, 164 cases of handling an offensive weapon and 210 house breakings.
In 2013/14 there were 13 occasions when attempted murder and serious assaults were dealt with by way of a custodial sentence between three and six months, along with 12 sexual assaults.
The Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: “These proposals are another sorry example of the SNP’s pre-occupation with emptying jails. Instead its focus should be on public protection and finding better ways to tackle escalating re-offending rates.
“Custodial sentences of any length protect public safety and deter criminals from offending.
“They also punish them if they do offend and provide crucial rehabilitation to ensure they do not repeat these patterns of behaviour on release. Extending the presumption against short-term sentences simply gives offenders the impression that their crimes aren’t serious enough to go to jail.
“Victims deserve a justice system that advocates for their interests instead of pandering to those of criminals. The Scottish Government needs to get a grip.
“Instead of emptying our prisons, it should provide better, more widely-available rehabilitation programmes and throughcare to get the reoffending rate down, which is in everyone’s interest.”
The Scottish Lib Dems, however, took a different view arguing that such steps had to be taken to relieve the pressure on Scotland’s jails.
Alison McInnes MSP said: “After four years in majority government, SNP moves to end the use of short term custodial sentences are long overdue.
“With more than 4,000 people given prison sentences of three months or less in 2013-14, it is clear that the current presumption isn’t working.
“All the evidence indicates that for these people, community-based sentences are more effective at reducing reoffending. Short-term sentences are senseless, destructive and limit the prison service’s ability to work with serious long-term offenders.
“Liberal Democrats have long set out plans to reform the criminal justice system so that it has a greater focus on effective rehabilitation. I hope that this finally signals an end to the SNP’s piecemeal approach to penal reform. We need a greater use of options that not only punish offenders but give them a real chance to change and make a positive contribution to the communities they have harmed.”
In his foreword to the consultation document, Mr Matheson said: “Imprisonment will always be required for those individuals whose offences are so serious that prison is the only appropriate form of punishment, and for those who pose a risk of serious harm. However, use of short-term imprisonment for individuals who do not fall into those categories is not effective – 60 per cent of offenders imprisoned for 3 months or less are re-convicted within a year. Short-term imprisonment disrupts families and communities, and adversely affects employment opportunities and stable housing - the very things that evidence shows support desistence from offending. That is clearly not a good use of public resources, and it is a waste of human potential. “