Prison sentences of less than three months should be scrapped as part of a major overhaul of Scotland’s criminal justice system, a leading think tank recommends today.
Reform Scotland also calls for senior criminal prosecutors to be directly-elected, making them more accountable to the public. [See sidebar]
The independent, non-party think tank says that jail terms of under 90 days are ineffective and expensive, offer no opportunity for rehabilitation and often push offenders towards a career in crime.
It also calls for an end to automatic early release from prison which, it says, ‘makes a mockery of the justice system’.
In a report entitled ‘Power to Protect’, Reform Scotland says greater accountability and transparency in the police, prosecution service and courts are vital if we are to see a sustained reduction in the level of crime.
‘We welcome the latest official figures showing an apparent decrease in crime in Scotland for last year ,’ says Ben Thomson, chairman of Reform Scotland.
‘However, despite the recent fall, the level of crimes and offences over the past 10 years has risen by 4%. Additionally, the Scottish Crime and Victimisation Survey, which records data from victims, shows that as many as six in 10 crimes go unreported. Radical changes are still required if we are to build a criminal justice system that is tough on crime and affords our citizens better protection.’
The report reveals that 2,128 people were sent to prison last year for a period of less than five weeks.
It states: ‘There is little point in sending people to prison for sentences of less than three months. As well as costing the taxpayer a lot of money, such sentences offer little time for rehabilitation and can end up pushing a person towards a career in crime and re-offending rather than away from it.
‘Therefore, we recommend that District and Justice of the Peace courts, which can currently sentence someone to a maximum of 60 days, are no longer able to send people to jail at all in the first instance. However, should an offender breach the conditions of his alternative sentence, the ultimate sanction of jail should still be available.
‘In addition, Sheriff Courts should only be able to send anyone to prison in the first instance for a sentence period of over three months. There is no good reason why some level of rehabilitation and training cannot be offered to a prisoner serving a sentence of three months.’
The report – the fourth research paper published by Reform Scotland since it was founded earlier this year – says there are a number of issues, from family breakdown to drug abuse, which must be tackled if crime is to be forced down.
Mr Thomson concludes: ‘Many of these areas need people to take individual responsibility for their actions. However, the government can also help deliver lower crime rates by changing the way services are delivered and that includes greater levels of accountability and transparency in the justice system itself.’
The report also recommends:-
- Greater police accountability
Police forces should match local authority areas. A councillor should be appointed within each police authority area to be responsible for policing in the same way that currently applies to education and transport. In areas with a directly-elected provost or mayor – as recommended by Reform Scotland in its report ‘Local Power’ – there could be appointed police commissioners. However, chief constables would still be in charge of operational matters.
- Judging the police
Regular publication of local crime statistics so the public can judge whether policing tactics and strategies in their areas are effective.
- Judging the courts
Statistics should be published to show the actual number of crimes and offences that are prosecuted and those which result in convictions. At present, only the number of individuals who are prosecuted and convicted is recorded, making it impossible to gauge the real level of crime.
- Sentencing powers
Courts should be given wider discretion when handing down sentences. If the most appropriate sentence is given at the earliest opportunity, this should lead to a reduction in re-offending. The report rejects demands for sentencing guidelines to be introduced.
- No automatic early release
Automatic early release from prison should be scrapped. Any reduction in time served should be as a result of good behaviour only. The report says that once a judge decides on a sentence it should be the responsibility of the State to ensure the sentence is carried out….rather than coming up with ways of emptying prisons.
- Rehabilitation in prison
Innovative schemes, including involving the private sector in training prisoners in useful skills as well as new financial incentives for prisons and their staff, to lower offending rates.
Former HM Inspector of Prisons Clive Fairweather said: ‘I welcome this report from Reform Scotland. It makes a number of sensible suggestions which are important to the well-being of everyone in Scotland.
\’Short prison sentences are a huge waste of time and resources in nearly every case. This is mainly due to the fact that the SPS are so understaffed they cannot engage with these individuals in any meaningful way. However, prison staff have shown that they are effective at dealing with serious and persistent offenders – so this is where efforts should be concentrated while prisons are so short of uniformed staff.
\’I have never understood the early release arrangements of the last decade. Sentences should mean what they say; only in exceptional cases, and where there has been sustained good behaviour, should early release ever be considered.\’
Scotland’s senior criminal prosecutors should be voted into office, making them directly accountable to the public.
At present, all 11 Area Procurators Fiscal are appointed to decide whether, where and how crimes are prosecuted. Yet, says the Reform Scotland report, there is little direct transparency or accountabilty in the system.
To redress this imbalance, Reform Scotland recommends that Area Procurators Fiscal should be directly elected, similar to the way in which American District Attorneys are voted into office.
The report says: ‘We would not envisage these elections being party political; it would be quite conceivable for more than one contender to belong to the same party or for individuals not to be politically aligned. Rather the elections would be a contest between the policies and attitudes the different individuals would adopt in office similar to the way in which DAs are elected in the US.
‘Such a policy would lead to a far clearer and more transparent system of justice, and could also allow different Area Procurators Fiscal to pursue crime in different ways reflecting the problems in their area.
‘For example, the Area Procurator Fiscal in Glasgow may have been elected on a platform to prosecute all drug crimes as solemn cases before a Sheriff and jury where higher sentences can be imposed in an attempt to act as a greater deterrent. However, in the Highland & Islands an Area Procurator Fiscal may have been elected to take a stance against wildlife crimes.
‘At present, procurators fiscal regularly decide how, where and what crimes to prosecute. However, under the system that Reform Scotland proposes the public are fully aware, and have a say, in the policies which are pursued.’