Justice ministers normally end up fearing for their political lives when trying to shake up the penal system – especially if they dare to suggest not locking up offenders.
They are baited for being ‘soft on crime’ – amid a flurry of negative headlines – and are usually ushered out of office for their pains.
But a powerful new body of evidence, presented to the Scottish Government, seems to have fatally undermined short prison sentences as an effective way of tackling crime.
New statistics show jail terms of three months or less are almost three times more likely to lead to subsequent patterns of offending within one year of release.
By contrast, Community Service Orders (CSOs) – requiring offenders to do some useful manual work instead – have been shown to be a much better way to prevent recidivism.
Official figures show the one year reconviction rate for those sentenced to three months or less imprisonment is a depressing 58.4 per cent.
This compares to 23.9 per cent for those handed a CSO.
Responding to the figures, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said: “What is again made clear by these statistics is that short-term prison sentences of three months or less simply don’t work.
“Those released from a prison sentence of three months or less are reconvicted three times more often than those who get Community Service Orders and it is clear that simply locking up these types of low-level offenders is not the answer.” MacAskill said sending such offenders to jail is simply “not working”, adding: “The result is the communities have to endure a ‘groundhog day’ scenario every time someone is released. A minor offender commits a low-level crime, they get free bed and board for three months, they are released, they go on to commit another crime in the community, they get sent back through the revolving door to our prisons, they are released, and then we go through the same repeating pattern over and over and over again.” The most recent statistics released are from a 2009/10 offender cohort study and do not reflect changes brought in by the SNP in February 2011.
Those guidelines, now in place, encourage judges to exercise a ‘presumption’ against such short sentences, although they still retain their discretion on a case-by-case basis.
So the next offender data due later this year, if positive, could act as a catalyst to bring in CSOs in place of jail terms of six months or less.
The argument for not sending criminals to jail is an incendiary one, and the SNP Government needs to build a consensus with other parties before embarking on that course.
But modern societies need modern policies based on evidence, rather than emotion, so Kenny MacAskill should at least try and grasp that particular nettle.
And perhaps we should ask ourselves what we would prefer: the harshest possible sentence or a genuine chance to stop offenders from doing it again?