“I want a smarter justice system that reduces repeat crime by providing robust community alternatives to ineffective short prison sentences—supporting offenders to turn away from crime for good.”
“If we can find effective alternatives to short sentences, it is not a question of pursuing a soft-justice approach, but rather a case of pursuing smart justice that is effective at reducing reoffending and crime.”—[
, 5 February 2019; Vol 654, c146.]
There is a disconnect between what Conservative spokespeople say here in Scotland and the policies that are being pursued by their colleagues in the UK Government. The reason for that disconnect is, to be frank, not that Liam Kerr has the interests and concerns of victims in mind, but that he is concerned about his next
Daily Mail column, and that is just about it.
He referenced the Howard League throughout his remarks. Of course, the Howard League supports the presumption against short sentences of 12 months. I welcome the Justice Committee’s scrutiny of the issue. The committee voted overwhelmingly—seven to two—in favour of the order, with only Conservative members opposing it.
We have increased the resources and protected the criminal justice social work budget of £100 million. We have also increased the funding for community alternatives. I say to Liam Kerr, and to others who are listening who have any scepticism about the presumption, that it is a presumption and not a ban. Of course, the UK Government wants to introduce a ban on sentences of six months, but we are suggesting a presumption, which means that sheriffs will have discretion in sentencing. Therefore, if there are any concerns about people who commit offences of domestic abuse, sheriffs will still be able to put those people behind bars, if that is what the sheriffs wish to do. That is why we waited until the training in that had been completed and the new domestic abuse offence had come into force before we introduced the order.
All the research shows that community alternatives are far more effective at rehabilitation than are damaging short sentences. For some people, it will absolutely be the case that, at the time, the only place for them, and the right place for them, will be prison, and sheriffs will have discretion in that respect. However, that does not apply to the vast majority of people. Short sentences disrupt family connections, tenancies and employment opportunities, and all those things mean that people are more likely to reoffend. If they are more likely to reoffend, there will, of course, be more victims of crime. If there are more victims of crime, we have a serious problem. I think that all members are on the side of victims, so we want fewer victims and less crime being committed.
Rather than pay attention to the Conservatives’ naked opportunism, I want to say how delighted I am that an overwhelming majority in the Parliament—the Labour Party, the Scottish National Party, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats—can come together, look at the facts, the data and the evidence, and collectively support progressive justice reforms that we have developed and which will make us all safer as a country and a society. I hope that, by approving the order, we will have fewer victims of crime, which is a win-win situation for everybody.