Prisons inquiry: Time to end the soft option

A TOP-LEVEL inquiry will tell the Scottish Government that community sentences need to be overhauled to cut crime and restore confidence in the justice system.

The biggest investigation into penal policy carried out in Scotland will report that community penalties need more "substance", amid widespread concern that they are too often a soft option.

In an exclusive interview with The Scotsman, Henry McLeish, the former first minister who is heading the inquiry, singled out public and judicial confidence in such sentences as an area desperately needing to be fixed. He said that until community orders were considered proper sentences, the judiciary might still consider sending certain offenders to jail to ensure they were suitably punished.

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And he warned that massive public investment would be needed to rehabilitate the few thousand hardcore criminals committing the bulk of offences.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr McLeish voiced alarm at the number of untried or remand prisoners in the country's jails – and the spiralling number of female inmates.

His concerns on community sentences come a day after The Scotsman reported that Borders sheriff Kevin Drummond condemned the early release of prisoners and branded his sentencing powers a "charade". He spoke out after jailing a man who had reoffended just weeks after being freed five months into a 16-month sentence.

The fears have been echoed by a senior council official in Edinburgh, who says scores of offenders every month wait weeks before their punishment begins.

"It's clear to me we have to work hard to build more credibility and confidence in alternatives to custody," said Mr McLeish. "One way we can do that is to treat someone who is given a community sentence in the same way as people who get a prison term.

"In New York, it doesn't matter whether you get a prison sentence or a community disposal. There is no delay in beginning your community service.

"We need to make community sentences sharper. If you get a prison sentence, you're immediately carted off. But if you get a community disposal, you might be hanging around eight, nine, or ten weeks later and nothing's happened. The public are asking 'what's going on?' when they see offenders free to commit more offences."

He added: "It's essential we look at ways to strengthen the court system to help sheriffs and judges, and create more substance to community disposals.

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"It's important we not only retain the confidence of the bench, but that we build on that. You cannot build that confidence if you don't invest. Rehabilitation doesn't come cheap."

The Scotsman can reveal that in Edinburgh one in seven criminals subject to a "live" community service order has yet to do any work. Of 600 offenders on an order, 82 – 14 per cent – have yet to be given anything to do.

A former Edinburgh sheriff, Ian Simpson, QC, said many courts also had little faith in probation, another community sentence which aims to address issues such as drug and alcohol addiction that fuel crime.

"I was having lunch with a sheriff recently who said probation was a joke. Community sentences do not have the confidence of the judiciary. There's no doubt that, in marginal cases, the weakness of community sentences is influencing the decisions of sheriffs," he said.

He said that when he was a sheriff in Edinburgh two years ago "about half" of all cases requiring background social-work reports had to be adjourned because there were not enough staff to draft the documents.

Don Miller, assistant criminal justice manager at Edinburgh City Council, admitted a lack of resources and inefficient processes were a problem. "The national standard is that someone on a community service order must begin their placement within 21 days. But the reality is it could be weeks above that before we can find a place for them.

"The trouble is there is a shortage of places. That comes down to resources. We are constantly at full capacity. As soon as someone is off sick, delays build."

The Association of Directors of Social Work has carried out a national audit of community sentences, which has uncovered major discrepancies in the way probation and work orders are carried out. Sandy Riddell, its convener of criminal justice, said a shortage of drug and alcohol addiction services was hindering the ability of the probation service to reduce reoffending by tackling the causes of crime.

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Mr McLeish said: "I was home affairs minister ten years ago, and I have been surprised, maybe shocked, to see the extent of the impact of drugs and alcohol on crime, and certainly in our prisons."

Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary, said that an extra 9 million over the next four years was being invested to improve community sentences.

He said: "We are strengthening and revitalising alternatives to custody for less serious offenders. By making the range of community penalties available to the courts as robust as possible we can help to ensure they are used with confidence."

But Bill Aitken, MSP, the Tory justice spokesman and a former Glasgow District Court judge, said: "There is no confidence on the part of sheriffs and judges that the existing community service order is effective. And there is certainly no confidence on the part of the public that these sentences act as a deterrent and punishment to offenders.

"I'm a strong believer that community service is a good disposal – but only when it is robust, visible and measurable. Unfortunately, I feel the 'soft-touch Scotland' approach will again be seen as the answer."

Range of alternatives to prison at courts' disposal


SHERIFFS and judges already have a wide range of community sentences available to punish offenders.

At the lower end of the scale lies the supervised attendance order (SAO). The previous Scottish administration introduced SAOs as an alternative to jail for those who default on fines. Instead, they must carry out a set number of hours of constructive work.

Community service orders are a direct alternative to prison and so can be handed out to serious and frequent offenders. The offender is required to carry out unpaid work of benefit to the community for between 80 and 300 hours.

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Many offenders are also given a period of probation, which can last from six months to three years. This is often used to address issues in a criminal's life that fuel their offending, such as having to access anti-drug and alcohol services, or taking steps to gain "work-friendly" skills.

International search but answers may lie at home


THE Bronx has now shed its reputation as New York's no-go area, and so was visited by Henry McLeish as part of the commission's research.

The commission also visited two other communities in New York – Midtown and Red Hook – which have successfully tackled the scourge of drug-dealing, property crime, violence and anti-social behaviour.

The Bronx Treatment Court was formed in 1999 and joined the growing number of courts in the United States which sentence criminal offenders to drug addiction treatment.

In Brooklyn, the award-winning Red Hook Community Court seeks to tackle the symptoms of urban malaise by mixing punishment with problem-solving and prevention.

The commission also went to Finland and Ireland to help inform its findings over ways to reduce crime and reoffending in Scotland.

But the way forward for Scotland's criminal justice system may have been uncovered much closer to home – in Falkirk. The commission was impressed with the way Falkirk deals with offenders whose crimes fall short of requiring a prison sentence.

The vast majority of criminals are processed through the local sheriff court on a Thursday. If the sheriff decides to hand down a probation or community service order, the offender will be taken from the dock to a meeting with social workers that afternoon.

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Unpaid work will usually begin within seven days of the sentence being passed. This compares with a 21-day national guideline, but some other towns and cities are failing to achieve even this figure.

Sheriffs considering a custodial sentence must have a background report prepared by social workers.

Due to pressure on the system and red tape, these reports are often unavailable in many courts, so the case has to be adjourned. But in Falkirk, that process has been speeded up by the sheriff clerk immediately e-mailing requests for social inquiry reports directly to the council.

Those reports are then couriered directly to court, minimising the risk they will be late.

Cornton Vale still needed


THE Prisons Commission has considered the issue of women inmates. Henry McLeish highlights a dramatic 90 per cent increase in female inmates since he had ministerial responsibility for prisons a decade ago.

At that time, women in prison were in the spotlight due to a shocking spate of suicides at Cornton Vale, Scotland's only dedicated women's jail.

However, Mr McLeish firmly rejects the suggestion that Cornton Vale – which houses about 400 prisoners – should simply be emptied.

"We have looked at Cornton Vale and the role of women in prison. The degree of damage done by substance abuse is very significant.

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"It's a sad situation that a lot of the women are there for their own protection, for example from abusive partners.

"But there are also a lot of serious criminals in Cornton Vale. Therefore, it doesn't help the argument to have a blanket approach."

Police success adds pressure


SCOTLAND'S courts have been put under pressure due to improving police investigative work, according to Henry McLeish.

He said: "The prison population is increasing, but the clear-up rate by police (the percentage of crimes solved] is higher than it was.

"The number of people going to court is higher than it was, and the conviction rate is higher.

"That's a good thing. It's a commendation for the work the police are doing. But that is putting pressure on the court system."

Another pressure from the courts is the increasing number of social work reports.

A sheriff must order a background report into someone's personal circumstances if he or she is considering a jail term.

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The report includes a recommendation from social workers as to what the appropriate punishment should be.


THE Prisons Commission will present its report to the Scottish Government towards the end of next month.

It will contain a number of recommendations on a range of penal issues.

The report will also cover two specific areas the commission was tasked with examining.

They include open prisons, at the centre of controversy after an inmate, Robert Foye, absconded and raped a teenager.

The commission has also been asked to consider the future of controversial legislation – which has yet to be enacted – to end automatic, unconditional early release.



Scotland's prison population last Friday


people per 100,000 population are in prison


of the population are in jail


increase in male prisoners over the last decade


increase in female prisoners over the last decade


remand (untried) prisoners in Scotland

1 in 3

remand prisoners receive jail sentences


of prisoners come from 25% of the country's council wards


of prisoners will be re-convicted within two years.


to run Scotland's prisons every year


promised by the Scottish Government each year to improve community sentences


The average cost of locking up a prisoner for a year


The average cost of a supervised attendance order


community sentences imposed in 2006–07


overcrowded jails


prisoners tagged and liberated to ease overcrowding


of inmates arrive in jail with alcohol problems


of inmates arrive with drug problems


of inmates arrive with mental health problems


crimes committed in Scotand each year, approximately