Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren is currently visiting Scotland with fellow US judge Victoria Pratt, and has met justice secretary Humza Yousaf and a number of criminal justice experts.
Speaking to The Scotsman, she called for alternatives to remand for young people suffering with mental health problems. Her comments came following a visit to Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution where vulnerable teenager William Lindsay, 16, killed himself within 48 hours of being remanded in October, despite being identified as a suicide risk.
The Florida-based judge also said a presumption against sentences of less than a year could lead to the “unintended consequence” of sheriffs handing down longer jail terms.
“The suicide epidemic in the United States and globally is extremely serious and particularly the suicide rate in US jails where it is the number one cause of death,” she said.
“Jail diversion is important to try and mitigate that risk, particularly as we know a significant percentage of young people have unidentified mental health issues.”
Asked whether she had concerns about vulnerable young people being held on remand, she said: “Absolutely. Our goal is to identify individuals as swiftly as they can when they enter the criminal justice system. We have a process [in the US] of rapid diversion into our mental health court where we have a clinician. The courtroom becomes a triage unit.”
Ms Lerner-Wren established the mental health court in Broward County, Florida in 1997, allowing defendants to be diverted for treatment.
Ms Pratt, a judge based in New Jersey, said she was impressed by some of the initiatives under way at Polmont, including work to build positive relationships between inmates and the police.
The Scottish Government has set up a review to look at mental health provision at the institution following the death of William and of Katie Allan, 21, who took her own life after being sentenced to 16 months.
Katie’s parents have accused prison staff of failing to heed warnings that their daughter was vulnerable and had a history of self-harming.
Ms Lerner-Wren also said the introduction of a presumption against sentences of less than a year by the Scottish Government could undermine judicial independence.
She said: “My concern is the potential for a counter-intuitive type outcome – the unintended consequences when you try to dictate judicial discretion with sentencing.
“Somebody could actually end up getting a longer sentence. I think it’s very important from a judicial independence standpoint to allow judges the discretion to sentence as they see fit based on the nature of the offence. I really think judges know best.”
The Scottish Government has backed community sentencing as an alternative to short jail terms as a way of tackling re-offending.