This article by Alison Payne appeared in the Herald.
The latest crime statistics published last week by the Scottish Government illustrate a welcome drop in recorded crimes and offences. But let us be clear: crime in Scotland is still unacceptably high.
The number of crimes and offences being committed in Scotland is higher today than it was in 1997/98. The true level may be even greater than the statistics suggest because the Scottish Crime and Victimisation Survey estimates that only four in 10 crimes are actually reported to the police. Further, when compared with other countries across Europe, only Sweden, England and Wales and Belgium have a higher level of crime per capita than Scotland.
Given this backdrop, Reform Scotland believes that radical policy changes are needed if we are to bring about a sustained reduction in crime which offers better protection to the law-abiding majority.
Yesterday, we published our fourth report, Power to Protect, which set out the changes we believe are necessary to do just this. The key to a safer Scotland is to introduce greater accountability and transparency into our criminal justice system, ensuring greater responsiveness to the communities it serves. Lines of accountability are too often blurred or the views of the public are largely ignored.
Invariably, election-time opinion polls tell us that the public wants to see more police on the streets, yet little seems to change because the police are not clearly accountable to the communities they serve. While Reform Scotland agrees that chief constables should not become politicised, there is a need for a system that responds better to local requirements.
We believe police forces should match up with local authority areas. In turn, a councillor would be appointed within each area, replacing the police boards, and given responsibility for policing in the same way that a councillor is currently responsible for education or transport.
Operational matters would rightly remain the responsibility of the chief constable. However, this provides a clear line of accountability from the police to the communities they serve. This system could easily be piloted in Fife or Dumfries and Galloway, where the police forces already match the council boundaries.
We would also recommend greater devolution within police forces to allow division commanders to respond to the specific problems in their area. This would also enable innovative methods to be tried out.
Currently in our courts system, appointed area procurators fiscal make a number of important decisions about whether a criminal case is tried, what court it is tried in and whether any plea-bargaining is allowed – all of which can have a big impact on the final sentence. But the public knows little about how these decisions are reached. The row over the guidelines for the use of fiscal fines, which can be handed out by procurators fiscal, illustrated how the public is often kept in the dark about such important matters.
MSPs are responsible for devising the law and if the public disagrees with the stance of the government, they can vote them out at the next election. However, the public is not only unaware of how procurators fiscal are implementing the law, they have no option to remove them if they did disagree with decisions.
To increase transparency and accountability, Reform Scotland believes all 11 area procurators fiscal should be directly elected by the communities they serve. This would also allow them to pursue different policies, reflecting the problems in their particular area.
Rehabilitation is a key component of the prison service and vital if reoffending is to be reduced. But a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Meaningful rehabilitation needs to be tailored to individuals, which is why we believe that prison governors must be given greater discretion to try out approaches which address the needs of their inmates. Some level of rehabilitation should be able to be provided whether an inmate is serving six months or 10 years.
While the growing prison population is a problem, the answer is not simply to empty our jails. There is little point in sending people to prison for sentences of less than three months and such sentences should no longer be given in the first instance. But to reduce the prison population, crime must be cut – and cut for the long term. We believe the policies we set out in our report will do just that, and therefore lead to a reduction in the prison population.
Reform Scotland recognises that there are a number of other issues, from drug abuse to community cohesion, which influence crime levels and need to be tackled. We believe the policy proposals in Power to Protect form the building blocks necessary to provide the criminal justice system that Scotland needs and deserves.
Alison Payne is Research Director of Reform Scotland.