‘Soft touch’ community sentences going unfinished

MORE than a quarter of community sentences handed to offenders as an alternative to prison are not completed, new figures show.

Michael Matheson said payback an effective alternative to prison. Picture: Michael Gillen

Details released by the Scottish Government show there were 18,599 community payback orders in 2013-14, a rise of 16 per cent on the previous year.

The measure was introduced in 2011 to replace community service and probation orders.

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But official statistics show the completion rate is only 72 per cent, falling to around 66 per cent for those under the age of 20.

Four-fifths of community payback orders include a requirement for unpaid work or other activity, and just over half (51 per cent) include offender supervision.

The figures also show that the number of cases where prosecution was waived and the offender diverted to carry out a social work order have increased by 35 per cent in a year.

There were 2,250 cases in 2013-14 where an offender was given an order such as community payback or drug treatment, up from 1,664 in 2012-13.

Justice secretary Michael Matheson said community payback was an effective alternative to prison, but critics said the orders were the “soft touch” option.

Mr Matheson said: “This government is working hard to ensure that Scotland is a safe place to live, work and visit. Recorded crime is at its lowest level for 40 years, supported by the work of more than 1,000 extra police officers in our communities.

“The figures represent the third full year of use for the community payback order – an order imposed by the courts to make offenders work hard in our communities, on both short and long-term projects, as payback for their crimes – and it’s clear that the orders are doing exactly that.

“The punishment should always fit the crime, and prison is the right place for those who commit serious crimes or pose a danger to communities. However, we know that short prison sentences do not work to rehabilitate offenders or to reduce the risk of re-offending.”

He added: “Community sentences are more demanding, start more quickly and allow offenders to payback to the community while also addressing the underlying causes of their offending behaviour. This is a smarter, more sophisticated option and we know it works.”

The Scottish Government said more than 1.8 million hours of unpaid work had been undertaken by offenders during the past year as punishment for their offences.

The work included the construction of cycle paths, the removal of graffiti and refurbishing community centres, public parks and sports facilities.

People aged 18 to 25 were most likely to be given a community payback order, according to the figures.

Overall, the prevalence of the orders increased for all age groups, except those aged 16 and 17, where the number fell from 64 orders per 10,000 population to 55.

But Tory justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said community payback orders were not working.

She said: “The SNP is constantly relying on these community payback orders as an alternative to custodial services. But while they do have a place, it is clear this approach just isn’t working.

“These figures show nearly a quarter aren’t being adhered to, and that’s unacceptable.

“It’s another example of SNP soft-touch policy completely undermining the justice system.”

The Scottish prison population is currently around 8,000, although 300 of those are serving a Home Detention Curfew (HDC) by wearing an electronic tag.

The figures released yesterday show that the number of HDC assessments fell by eight per cent in 2013-14 to 2,900.