I rise to speak against the draft
Presumption Against Short Periods of Imprisonment (Scotland) Order 2019, which will bring in a presumption against courts imposing on criminals prison sentences of 12 months or less, unless there is no alternative.
The underlying rationale for the order is that Scotland has the highest prison population in western Europe and that community-based sentences are more likely to reduce reconvictions.
However, the Justice Committee heard that data on populations that are subject to imprisonment or community sentences, their circumstances and the interventions that have succeeded, is sorely lacking.
The conclusion that community sentences lead inexorably to lower reconviction rates is, according to Professor Tata, “dodgy”. The Scottish Sentencing Council is clear that it does not automatically follow that offenders who are given community sentences in lieu of three months’ imprisonment will show similar reconviction rates to those who would otherwise get 12 months imprisonment.
Furthermore, the presumption aims to substantially increase the numbers of criminals entering a system in which a third of sentences and two-thirds of drug treatment orders are not completed; in which a quarter of sentences do not involve work or meaningful activity; and in which a third take longer than mandated to commence. All that is in a context in which the funding and resources for community sentences are challenging. The Howard League For Penal Reform In Scotland said:
“We must avoid a situation in which courts are discouraged from imposing custodial sentences, but effective community-based alternatives are unavailable.”
There are better ways to reduce the reconviction rate and increase rehabilitation, without the risks. We could adequately resource prisons, we could ensure that all prisoners have access to rehabilitation, and we could look at there being proper housing and work available on release. We could examine the Howard League’s suggestions on women in prison, we could review use of remand, and we could properly collate data on what works, why and for whom.
We have not done those things. Instead, the SSI imposes on the independent judiciary. Our judges are experienced, well-trained and knowledgeable in determining the appropriate sentence, yet the SSI will impose a requirement on how to dispose of a sentence, regardless of the individual facts of a case, and despite the failure to ensure that sentencers have trust in the alternatives and that there is more uniform provision across Scotland.
I foresee the SSI going one of two ways. Sentencers might continue to hand out the sentences that they think are appropriate and the prison population will stay static—or, ironically, increase, due to up-tariffing. In that case, we will have wasted time and resource, while ignoring the real challenges and blockers to rehabilitation in the system, such as the lack of resources and data analysis.
Alternatively—and according to the Government’s predictions—sentencers will feel pressured to put into the community criminals whom they would otherwise have put in prison. I fear that the Scottish Government is taking a risk with the safety of the public and, in particular, as Scottish Women’s Aid has said, with the safety of victims of domestic abuse.
I worry that victims and the public have, as we have heard from victims groups, little faith in community sentencing, and I am certain that there are better, safer and more considered ways to achieve what Parliament desires.
Therefore, I urge the Parliament to vote against this SSI.