Scottish Liberal Democrats to back presumption against prison sentences of less than a year

Written by Alan Robertson on 15 February 2016 in News

Analysis of responses to Scottish Government consultation expected inside the next few weeks

The Scottish Liberal Democrats will back a presumption against prison sentences of less than a year in their Holyrood election manifesto.

Justice spokesperson Alison McInnes said custody had proven to be “hugely ineffective, even destructive” for those given short-term sentences.

Judges are currently urged not to hand down a custodial sentence of three months or less unless the court considers that no other sentence is appropriate.


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The Scottish Government has consulted on whether the current presumption should be extended up to either six, nine or 12 months.

A number of figures across the justice sector, including HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, David Strang, have called for ministers to move to 12 months.

An analysis of consultation responses is likely to be published in the “coming weeks”, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson told the justice committee last week.

McInnes said: “Scotland has one of the highest prison populations per capita in Western Europe. But prison has proven to be hugely ineffective, even destructive, for people given short-term sentences.

“It does little to dissuade them from offending again, with 60 per cent of offenders sent to jail for three months or less re-convicted within a year of release.

“A prison place costs £37,000 a year – much more than effective community-based sentences like Community Payback Orders which cost on average £1,900. That means this policy will also enable the Scottish Prison Service to really focus on engaging with more serious long-term offenders, not those who experts have deemed ‘more troubling than dangerous’.

“The robust community justice programmes we would ensure are available to judges and sheriffs also help provide stability and ensure successful rehabilitation.

“These programmes help avoid people becoming homeless or losing touch with their families – the links which even a short stint inside can destroy.”

Government-commissioned research published last year found “little sign” of the current presumption against short prison sentences “figuring prominently or explicitly in judicial decision-making”, perhaps even leading to longer sentences be imposed.

The average length of custodial sentences, excluding life sentences, in 2013-14 was around nine-and-a-half months, according to official figures. Two-thirds of those receiving a prison sentences were given six months or less.

Strang, who last October told Holyrood an increase to 12 months would be “perfectly reasonable”, said such a move “could serve to highlight the opportunity for sentencers to select a tailored, community-based intervention”.

Sheriff Frank Crowe, a former director of Judicial Studies, said a “12 month limit would emphasise the law that summary prison sentences are a last resort”.

However, Victim Support Scotland said it “is not convinced that extending the presumption against short periods of imprisonment would have any significant effect on sentencing practice, in and of itself”.

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