CommonSpace columnist Ian Dunn suggests scrapping short prison sentences would be a great place to start
SENDING a criminal to prison for less than a year is a colossal waste of time, money, and hope.
Everyone who works in prisons knows it. Guys who go in for a short stretch can tough it out, don’t engage with rehabilitation and are back almost as soon as they’re released. Sixty per cent of those sentenced to less than three months behind bars are re-convicted within a year.
It’s a problem deferred, not solved. Everyone knows it, the chief inspector of prisons , leading academics , hell even Henry McLeish knows it.
Sending a criminal to prison for less than a year is a colossal waste of time, money, and hope.
Over the past decade Scotland has seen some ground work done in rehabilitation. The Violence Reduction Unit has proven people can turn their lives around. For less serious offences this often works best in community programmes which force criminals to confront their actions.
For more serious criminals, who should be in prison, the deep hard work of rehabilitation takes years. The SNP deserves great credit for taking this on. In 2010, it introduced a presumption against three-month or less sentences, meaning judges should avoid them wherever possible. It didn’t work.
In 2013-14 judges handed out 4,000 such sentences. Judges are always wary of government interference into what they perceive as their domain. So they’ve gone back, and Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has recently announced a consultation into extending this presumption for as long as a year. He should do so.
This is not about relieving the pressure on Scotland’s creaking prison service. It’s about breaking generation-long cycles of poverty and criminality. It’s not being soft on crime, it’s being smart on crime.
Guys who go in for a short stretch can tough it out, don’t engage with rehabilitation and are back almost as soon as they’re released.
Of course, there are plenty of people who would prefer it be called the vengeance system rather than the justice system. The Scottish Tories have been quick to condemn any attempt to scrap short sentences, saying they “could mean hundreds of people convicted of crimes like housebreaking, handling offensive weapons and common assault walking free”.
Interesting that they listed housebreaking first, almost as if they see property as more important than people.
The SNP can afford to ignore such claims. It’s impossible to imagine any recent Labour government, Scottish or British, making such a move because they’d be too terrified of being accused of being soft on crime.
However, the SNP has the electoral insulation to press ahead with vital reforms that in normal times are too politically toxic. Scrapping short sentences is but the first step. The Scottish Parliament already has considerable powers.
The SNP has the electoral insulation to press ahead with vital reforms that in normal times are too politically toxic. Scrapping short sentences is but the first step.
While preparing for the next referendum the SNP be using its popularity to change Scotland. Drugs policy is an obvious place to start: legalization may not be devolved but enforcement is another matter.
Wherever it can, the Scottish Government should be considering radical challenging policies, without caring for the political consequences. The shortest route to independence is to act like it’s already here.
Picture courtesy of Thomas Hawk