Short-term sentences in Scottish jails on the rise

A prisoner in Saughton Jail. Picture: TSPL
A prisoner in Saughton Jail. Picture: TSPL
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THE number of short-term jail sentences handed out to Scottish criminals has risen, damaging government plans to reduce reoffending.

There were 10,665 prison terms of six months or less issued in 2011-12, just over 100 more than the previous year.

The Scottish Government’s ban on sentences of less than three months in all but exceptional cases came into force in February 2011.

Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, had initially wanted to end sentences of six months or less, but had faced opposition in parliament. He argued they created “a vicious cycle” where minor criminals served time with more serious ones and left prison more likely to reoffend.

According to latest figures released in response to a Scottish Parliament question by Lewis Macdonald MSP, numbers were consistently falling until the ban came into force, from 12,664 in 2007-08, to 10,561 in 2010-11.

Last year, the first full year with the presumption against sentences of less than three months in force, the number of short sentences actually rose. Mr Macdonald, justice spokesman for Scottish Labour, suggested the judiciary was either disregarding the presumption, or sentencing people to between three and six months, where they otherwise may have received less than three.

“I will be tabling a further question to try and find out,” he said. “I am going to ask how many were sentenced to less than three months and how many to between three and six.

“What we might find is people who were previously getting two to three months are now getting four to five, where the sheriff rightly makes the judgment that this person should be locked up as a warning to others, or to give the community a break.

“The idea of dictating sentencing policy simply in terms of statistics, rather than thinking about the impact on the community, is wrong. Sheriffs will have ignored the minister where they think it’s appropriate.”

The Scottish Government has urged sheriffs to impose community payback orders instead of sentences of less than three months, in all but exceptional circumstances. However, recent figures showed that of 7,763 orders issued by the courts, just 2,536 had been completed.

The orders comprise a mixture of community punishment, fines and compensation, and rehabilitation programmes, such as for drugs or alcohol.

The figures have proved to be so poor that the Scottish Government has ordered an inquiry into the effectiveness of community payback orders.

While crime is now at a 37-year low, reoffending rates have remained high, with 42 per cent committing another crime within two years. In November last year, Audit Scotland warned attempts to tackle reoffending were disjointed, despite benefiting from a £128 million budget.

However, the Scottish Government insisted the presumption against short-term sentences was succeeding. “Recorded crime is going down in this country and is now at its lowest level for 37 years,” a spokesman said.

“This government introduced a presumption against sentences of three months or less and the number of sentences of three months or less has been steadily decreasing from 53 per cent of custodial sentences in 2006-07 to 28 per cent in 2011-12.

“While courts rightly retain final discretion to decide whether to impose a short sentence in individual cases, this government wants to see short sentences decrease even more. Short sentences do not allow rehabilitation to take place and, on average, offenders imprisoned for three months or less are re-convicted three times as often as those who receive unpaid work.”