Time for Michael Matheson to live up to his motto of ‘smart on crime’

Written by Alan Robertson on 1 June 2016 in Comment

Justice secretary Michael Matheson has a challenge ahead to lower the reoffending rate among adult offenders

All eyes were on John Swinney as the First Minister put the finance secretary of nine years in charge of her number one priority for the next five: education.

In fact, only three in a cabinet of ten retained the portfolio they finished last session with, one of which was justice secretary Michael Matheson.

Compared to his cabinet colleague Fergus Ewing, who had the Common Agricultural Policy mess to muddle through on his first day as rural economy secretary, Matheson enjoyed a much more welcome return with the publication of figures showing reconviction rates for offenders in Scotland have fallen to their lowest level in 17 years.

If you can sense a ‘but’ coming, then you’d be right.

This decline in reconviction rates is not a universal phenomenon. Instead, it has been driven primarily by a sharp fall in youth reoffending over the past decade.

Polmont Young Offenders Institution is half-empty, the only square footage going spare in the public sector that is likely to be greeted with enthusiasm.

Worryingly though, the average number of convictions per offender for individuals aged under 21 increased for the first time in eight years.

Move further up the age categories and the average number of convictions has risen 14 per cent for those aged 31 to 40 and 16 per cent among the over-40s in the last nine years.

Make no mistake, this is the challenge facing Matheson as the fifth session of the Scottish Parliament gets underway.

He spent his first 16 months in the job putting out fires that his predecessor had a tendency to pour fuel on. Now is the time for him to live up to his motto of ‘smart on crime’ and start matching rhetoric with reform.

With the Greens and Lib Dems behind extending the presumption against short-term prison sentences from three months to 12, there is a majority in parliament should the SNP get on board. Get on with it.

Before departing parliament, Scotland’s longest-serving justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, claimed the change in direction on female custody – ditching plans for Inverclyde prison and focusing on smaller units instead – could only happen with the appointment of Nicola Sturgeon as first minister.

“Many people involved will say, ‘what is the difference between male and female prisoners’,” he said.

“Well, actually, there is a section of male prisoners who are career criminals etc. and have to be dealt with, and there is a greater propensity by some for clear violence, but actually the underlying problems suffered by female prisoners are suffered by many male prisoners.

“Now why do we concentrate at the moment on female prisoners, is it because it’s only female prisoners?

“No, it’s because there is a political moment, because everybody knows we can sell it to the public so we sell them female prisoners.

“Then we move on to young prisoners and remarkable progress has been made on youth offending. Only then do we come back [to male offenders]. It’s the political moment.”

Such short-sighted politics, though often typical of decision-making today, is reactionary. It is timidity writ large.

Matheson would be wise not to fall into the same trap. If the last parliamentary session was devoted to policing, then this one must be devoted to prisons.

More half-empty Polmonts should be Matheson’s number one priority from today onwards.

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