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19 January 2015
McLeish: Scrap prison sentences of six months or less in next parliament

McLeish: Scrap prison sentences of six months or less in next parliament

Ministers should scrap prison sentences of six months or less in the next parliament, a former First Minister has urged.

Henry McLeish, who chaired the Scottish Prisons Commission, told delegates at a Holyrood conference the current presumption against sentences of three months or less “just dabbles on the edges of sentencing”.

The Commission, which reported in 2008 and also included current chief inspector of prisons, David Strang, as well as Sheriff Alistair Duff, who now leads the Judicial Institute for Scotland, called for an end to six-month custodial sentences in all but exceptional circumstances.

A presumption against prison sentences of three months or less was all a then minority SNP administration could get past opposition parties at Holyrood, however.

“Now in that category [of six months and under] there are those who are serious offenders, there’s a lot of domestic violence, there’s a lot of sentencing there that people think should have been much, much longer,” McLeish told an audience at Holyrood’s annual female offenders conference last week.

“But, nevertheless, I would like to think, as a way forward, to allow the experts in the prisons to do their job better and actually to get more investment for you [alternatives to prison] to be doing more, is to say that the next parliament will work towards the presumption that people shouldn’t be sent to prison for less than six months. The figures are absolutely enormous.”

Eighty-three per cent of prison sentences in 2005-06 – figures relied upon in the Commission’s work - were for six months or less and 57 per cent of all prison sentences were for 90 days or less.

Latest figures for criminal proceedings show two-thirds of people receiving a custodial sentence in 2013-14 were sentenced to six months or less. Almost two in five of all those sentenced were given between three and six months.

McLeish’s comments echo those of fellow Commission member Strang, who previously told Holyrood such short sentences can prove “an expensive way of not working constructively with people”.

Official projections for Scotland’s female prison population by the end of the decade range between 560 and 710, according to latest figures published in 2012 (statistics for the last two years are not expected to be published until this summer as a result of delays in processing data).

“The male figures, although stabilising, are much the same,” added McLeish. “So no matter what we do, no matter whether unemployment is up or down, crime is up or down, austerity is up or down, the prison population just keeps going up and up and up.

“To me that’s the ultimate absurdity of where we are and the cause of much of our frustration [that] no matter what we do, there are just more people in prison.

“It’s illogical, it’s completely crazy, and it may well be that in other jurisdictions in Europe and worldwide that’s the same phenomenon. But it seems to me that the politicians, the leadership of the country, has got to accept that for nearly two decades now we’ve been working with Cornton Vale, working on women’s issues, and some progress [has been] made but [there’s] still an enormous way to go.”

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