Safety first: Justice Secretary Michael Matheson on progress in Scotland

Written by Michael Matheson on 26 October 2017 in Comment

Scotland is safer than it was a decade ago, but progress has not been equal across all communities

Michael Matheson - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

Scotland is a safer country today than a decade ago, with fewer crimes, less violence, reduced drug use, improved fire safety and better support for those who are victims of crime or other serious incidents.

But this progress has not been felt equally in all communities.

Our ambition for a truly inclusive, just and fairer Scotland, where everyone feels safe, secure and respected, demands concerted, intelligent and focused action.

To make progress, a modern Scotland must first acknowledge past mistakes.

We will shortly introduce legislation for men convicted under now discredited old offences for same-sex sexual activity.

This will deliver a practical remedy by providing a pardon and offer the opportunity to ensure convictions do not appear on disclosure checks.  


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An ongoing priority through this parliament is our work to combat violence against women and girls, including delivering the new domestic abuse offence to better tackle coercive and controlling behaviour.

The recently published results of the sexual crimes research I commissioned last year highlighted the significant misuse of digital communications – accounting for around half of the growth in all recorded sexual crimes since 2013-14 – and the disproportionate place of girls as victims and young men as perpetrators.

We have taken considerable steps in this area in recent years, including our recent ‘intimate images’ campaign, the national action plan on internet safety and our ‘Equally Safe’ strategy.

However, the Solicitor General and I are establishing an expert group, comprising education, justice and health specialists, to recommend further actions to prevent and respond to criminal and other harmful sexual behaviour involving young people.

The National Violence Reduction Unit, in which we have invested over £8.7m since 2008, has been at the forefront of Scotland’s pioneering public health approach to preventing violence.

In addition to the excellent work with schools and youth organisations, its collaboration with Medics Against Violence is training professionals across Scotland to recognise and act upon the signs of domestic abuse.

We must achieve the kind of transformative change in attitudes and behaviour towards the abuse of women and girls as we have seen in reducing overall violence – where, between 2008-09 and 2014-15, police recorded 50 per cent fewer non-sexual violent crimes and, separately, the number of violent incidents reported by the public through the Scottish Crime & Justice Survey has decreased by 41 per cent.

The large reduction in overall recorded crime – now 43 per cent lower than in 2006-07 – is testament to much good work by many individuals, communities and organisations, reflecting our multi-pronged approach of education, prevention and enforcement.

Police Scotland has played key roles in all three strands – deploying their collective local, regional and national resources wherever needed to promote community safety and protect the public.

In the face of a near decade of Westminster-imposed austerity, the Scottish Government continues to provide real-terms protection of the service’s revenue budget, yet this could go much further if it was not the only territorial police force in the UK unable to recover VAT.

We will continue to press the UK Government to remove this glaring disparity of treatment, which could otherwise cost the Scottish public purse £200m by the end of this parliamentary session.

We are also supporting Police Scotland, including through dedicated reform funding, to not only strengthen its capacity to keep people safe but to enhance its specialist capability to tackle emerging threats like cybercrime and online fraud.

The ‘Policing 2026’ strategy also recognises and responds to the demands placed upon policing from vulnerability and the consequences of inequalities.

Indeed, the Justice Vision and Priorities strategy paper I launched in July highlighted the relatively poor physical and mental health of people in contact with the justice system.

While there is much good practice, including pilot projects across Scotland, the Health Secretary and I are currently engaging the leadership of the justice and health sectors to explore together what more can be done to ensure the response to people in distress is as timely and effective as it can be – supporting people to overcome personal challenges and crises, and reducing the risks of exacerbating these.

We must also draw lessons from the success of our decisive shift in approach to youth justice, which has contributed to huge falls in youth offending by intervening earlier and providing multi-agency support alongside significant investment in diversionary projects, including through Cashback.

The Justice Vision outlined our commitment to a more progressive, evidence-based approach, prioritising prevention and rehabilitation alongside enhanced support for victims.

I am determined to ensure support is provided to victims so that the traumatic experience already faced is not exacerbated, and that they give their best evidence. 

We recently consulted on removing barriers to pre-recorded evidence, particularly in cases involving children, and we are exploring a ‘single point of contact’ model of support.

Scotland is also fully committed to tackling human trafficking and exploitation and the Government is working closely with criminal justice agencies and support organisations to fully implement our recently launched national strategy.

Penal reform is another government priority. There will always be cases where the court rightly decides that a prison sentence is absolutely justified.

However, Scotland still has one of the highest incarceration rates in Western Europe.

Indeed, average prison sentences have actually increased by more than 25 per cent since 2006-07, with those sentenced to life also spending longer in prison.

While the prison population has seen small annual reductions of between one and two per cent since 2011-12, it remains about 25 per cent higher than when the Scottish Parliament reconvened in 1999.

Where the courts determine that a prison sentence is appropriate, it is essential to provide opportunities for – and the necessary challenge to – people to become contributing members of society when eventually released, thereby improving public safety in the long term.

That rationale is behind our plans to transform the female custodial estate, with a new, smaller national facility at Cornton Vale and, initially, two community custody units in Glasgow and Dundee.

The new units will provide more appropriate accommodation and support for women offenders and help them maintain links with their families and be accommodated close to their communities.

Those prisoners who have committed the most serious offences or pose the most significant risks to public safety are precisely those who we should be seeking to rehabilitate during the time they spend in custody.

But we can do that most effectively by ensuring our hard-working prison staff are not spending so much of their time having to process admissions and discharges from custody for men and women convicted of less serious offences, who have been sent to prison for short periods.

Short prison sentences do little to rehabilitate people or reduce their likelihood of reoffending. We know short-term imprisonment disrupts families and communities, and adversely affects employment opportunities and stable housing – the very things that evidence shows support desistence from offending.

Our earlier shift towards more community-based sentencing, including the introduction of community payback orders, have helped reduce Scotland’s reconviction rates by 17 per cent over the last decade to an 18-year low.

Individuals released from a custodial sentence of 12 months or less are reconvicted nearly twice as often as those given a CPO.

That is why when the new domestic abuse legislation is in force, we will extend the presumption against short prison sentences to 12 months and continue promoting the use of robust community sentences that see people pay back their debts to society while addressing the underlying causes of their offending behaviour.

We will also introduce legislation to expand the availability and capabilities of electronic tagging to monitor and manage individuals in the community, supporting them to turn away from crime and make amends with their families and communities.

Whether in custody, or increasingly the community, by better-tackling the underlying issues that so often drive cycles of offending, we can help keep crime down and deliver a safer, fairer and more resilient Scotland.

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