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Review of the political year: Q&A with Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf

Review of the political year: Q&A with Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf

What has been the personal highlight of this past year been for you in your portfolio?

Extending the presumption against short prison sentences to 12 months or less was a real milestone moment. In doing so we are asking judges to give serious consideration to greater use of community alternatives that prioritise rehabilitation and use custody as a last resort. Many of the individuals currently serving short prison sentences have complex needs that contribute to frequent offending. We should be helping them tackle the root causes of those problems so they can escape prison’s revolving door, rather than taking away what stability they have in their home and family.

Since I was appointed Justice Secretary last summer, I’ve visited a number of projects that help people in the justice system take a new path. I was particularly touched by the experiences of those involved with the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit’s Street and Arrow initiative, which provides training, mentoring and paid employment for people leading chaotic lifestyles. Hearing how they have grasped these second chances and how they have positively changed their lives and the lives of their families was inspirational.

Having passed the Management of Offenders Bill and increased the presumption against short-term sentences to 12 months, how do you raise awareness and change the culture around community sentences as an alternative to prison, both among the public and those doing the sentencing?

It's important that we keep working to promote community sentences – they have a lot to commend them already when compared to short custodial sentences, and the changes through the Management of Offenders Bill offer exciting potential to develop them further with the introduction of new technology, such as remote substance monitoring and GPS technology. These new capabilities can allow exclusion zones to be set for the protection of victims, or they can help structure an order to promote desistance.

Changing the culture around community sentences is not something that government can do on its own – sentencers and the wider public make their own judgements about what is effective. What we can do is let people know about the fantastic work that is underway across Scotland with those on community payback orders and signpost evidence to give the public – and the judiciary – further confidence in alternatives to custody. The passage of the bill and the extension to the presumption showed there is already considerable consensus about our approach. All parties – bar one – supported these measures and I am keen to continue to work with like-minded colleagues across parliament to collaborate to resist simplistic, punitive and ineffective policy responses, and instead keep focussing on pursuing policy that works.

Recent reports have suggested that prisoners are having to wait eight months for basic life skills classes and less than a third of prisoners are attending education classes at some prisons. How will you ensure that prisoners are rehabilitated as well as punished?

The Scottish Prison Service attempts to maximise the number of opportunities available to those in their care to participate in work, education or other purposeful activities. However, the prison service is managing near record numbers of people in custody and this has an obvious impact on access to a range of programmes and opportunities. With more people in their care wanting to attend classes, it is no surprise that waiting lists are longer. The Scottish Government are actively monitoring the rising prison population and have been working closely with the prison service to ensure measures are in place to support staff and the people in its care.

How do you ensure that reform of hate crime legislation protects vulnerable people from harm, but does not curtail free speech or open discussion, including things others may find offensive?

Hate crime can have a hugely damaging effect on victims, their families and communities and we should all play our part in challenging it. Such behaviour can also create a less tolerant atmosphere in wider society and increase social unrest. Our planned reforms to hate crime law are intended to provide a single, clear legal framework and send an unequivocal message that hatred and prejudice are not acceptable. We want to modernise and simplify the law to ensure the right balance between freedom of speech, religious expression and sufficient protection for those who face unacceptable discrimination.

I’m aware some respondents to our consultation on Lord Bracadale’s review of hate crime law were concerned that creating new offences regarding the stirring up of hatred could have an impact on people’s right to freely express their views on controversial topics. I recognise that it’s important that new legislation doesn’t inadvertently interfere with the right to debate and there’s a clear distinction to be made between legitimate criticism and discussion of ideas and behaviour intended to stir up hatred. We’ll carefully consider the responses received to the consultation in developing policy in this area with thought being given to including within the legislation necessary freedom of expression protections.

Would you decriminalise drug use if it was in your power to do so?

Recent evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee suggests our shift to addressing drug use as a health issue, rather than a criminal justice one, is grounded in strong evidence and has wide support. We’re clear that we would like to amend the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 so we can pursue a wider public health approach to halt the rising drug death toll. This legislation is currently reserved to the UK Parliament who have refused thus far in dialogue, for example, to enable a supervised consumption facility to operate in Glasgow.

We recently announced the formation of a drug deaths taskforce to examine the barriers in both practice and in law to making progress in reducing harm and deaths amongst people who use drugs. This will examine the ways in which the operation of the current law can be strengthened and make the case for change based on evidence. We’re prepared to take bold and innovative action, even if in the first instance this may prove challenging or unpopular. As with our support for Glasgow’s proposal to establish a supervised drug consumption facility, we’re willing to consider any proposals that can help save the lives of those most at risk.

Is sectarianism still regarded as less serious than other forms of prejudice or hate in Scotland and what role should football teams, SPFL and SFA take in helping to tackle it?

I do not see hate crime in any kind of hierarchy. All forms of hate crime, including sectarianism, are completely unacceptable. Of course, it would be wrong to suggest sectarian behaviour is unique to football but there is no doubt our national game has a long-standing problem. That is why – like all of us – the football authorities and clubs have a role to play in tackling it. I want the Scottish FA and SPFL to demonstrate real leadership and work with clubs to make sure grounds are places where no-one is exposed to abuse. We are working with the football authorities, clubs and other partners to consider what more can be done. Some clubs have taken robust and meaningful action, and I’d like to see others follow their lead.

As a football fan, I know how much a feeling of friendly rivalry can add to the stadium atmosphere, but that is no excuse for bigotry and aggression. For our part we have invested an unprecedented £14 million since 2012 in work to tackle sectarianism, including with grassroots clubs and the Scottish FA schools of football. We will continue to actively engage with football authorities and clubs where there is a will to take positive action.    

A large amount of police resource is going towards acting as a service of last resort for those in crisis, What conversations have you had with colleagues about preventing the criminal justice system being used as a crisis service for those who have had too little support elsewhere?

The solutions to these issues sit across portfolios and I am working closely with my ministerial colleagues to ensure we continue to make progress in developing a multi-agency response to crisis prevention and management. This requires effective collaboration across health, social care and justice and we have established a distress intervention group, formed from partners across these areas, to look at how we can better manage those in crisis when they require professional help.

It is our ambition that the right individual accesses the right help at the right time, which should mean more appropriate use of police and other resources, including the third and voluntary sectors. This should mean fewer individuals being taken to emergency departments when a less ‘medicalised’ response would be more appropriate and more supportive for their needs. The distress intervention group has a clear action plan for streamlining pathways across these services. It will be implemented over the following months and outputs will be monitored very closely. I am hopeful this work will see people in crisis being managed more effectively in the community and will lead to a reduction in unnecessary police and ambulance conveyances.

Boris Johnson enjoys painting wooden crates. What do you do to unwind?

I have a 14-week-old newborn daughter. I don’t have time to unwind!  If I do have the time, I am a massive foodie, so love to head out with my wife and try new places to eat.

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