Pubdate: Thu, 07 Jun 2007
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: 2007 The Scotsman Publications Ltd
Author: Hamish MacDonell


THOUSANDS of criminals, including thieves, housebreakers, vandals and
fine-defaulters, will be spared prison sentences under radical plans
announced yesterday by the new Scottish Executive.

Kenny MacAskill, the justice secretary, said he wanted to adopt a more
liberal approach to penal policy.

Prison, he said, should be reserved for "serious offenders", not the
"flotsam and jetsam" of society that, he claimed, was clogging up the
nation's prisons unnecessarily. Of the 7,000 prisoners in Scotland
today, most are in jail for sentences of six months or less.

Mr MacAskill believes many of these criminals should be serving
community sentences instead, leaving prison for long-term, serious

He said he was really concerned with those imprisoned for drink- and
drug-related offences, those with mental health problems, first-time
offenders and fine-defaulters.

But he refused to say how many of these prisoners would be spared jail
under his plans, whether certain offences would be exempt from prison
terms or how the new approach would be adopted.

The minister did say, however, that early next week, he would be
meeting the National Advisory Board on justice - a body which
represents the major interest groups in Scottish justice - and would
be asking for progress on this issue.

Mr MacAskill also announced the SNP government would recruit an extra
1,000 police officers and launch a crackdown on under-age drinkers and
those who sell alcohol to them.

He intended to move to ban discounted alcohol promotions in shops and
off-licences and launch an anti-violence agenda focusing on changing
the culture on knives.

He confirmed, as expected, that he did not want private companies
running prisons in Scotland but said this would apply to "new"
prisons, leaving the future of Kilmarnock, Scotland's only private
jail, unclear.

Stealing a well-known line from Tony Blair, Mr MacAskill said it was
time to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime".

He said the government would come down hard on serious offenders, but
it would concentrate on the social and economic problems that led to
many other crimes.

"We will detain the dangerous but treat the troubled," he

On drugs, he said: "We must stop the situation where young people -
whether because of low self esteem or lack of opportunity - shoot up
and opt out."

He went on: "Our clear aim is to prevent and deter crimes. But those
who offend must face the consequences of their actions."

But it was on prison policy that he was most detailed and

He said: "We need a coherent penal policy. Prison should be for
serious and dangerous offenders, not fine-defaulters or the flotsam
and jetsam of our communities.

"So we need to shift the balance, with less serious offenders
currently cluttering our prisons sentenced to community

The minister added: "I want tough community punishments which will
protect the public, help offenders turn their lives around and involve
some payback to communities they harmed."

After the parliamentary debate, Mr MacAskill told The Scotsman that
"those who are dangerous or who have committed a serious offence must
go to prison".

But he went on: "Those who have a drug addiction might be dealt with,
using drug-treatment and testing orders; fine-defaulters should be
dealt with in other ways."

He said he wanted community sentences to be both visible and
effective, and for them to be the "first port of call" for sheriffs,
not just an alternative to prison.

The latest government statistics show the widespread use of short-term
prison sentences.

About 16,000 people were given custodial sentences by Scottish courts
in 2005-6, and 83 per cent of those sentences were for six months or

A total of 57 per cent were for three months or less, for offences
such as drunkenness, motor vehicle offences, breach of the peace,
vandalism and shoplifting, and many of them were drug related.

Mr MacAskill did not reveal how many of these prisoners he wished to
see given community sentences instead, but he did make it clear that
he wanted to see a change in attitude and a presumption against
short-term jail sentences.

Margaret Curran, the shadow justice secretary, was critical of Mr
MacAskill's proposals, warning that many of those in prison serving
short-term sentences were dangerous and had been locked up for the
good of society.

She said: "The SNP believes that people in prison serving sentences of
less than six months are merely the 'flotsam and jetsam' of society
who should be on the streets rather than in prison.

"The reality is that these are criminals who have been convicted of
breach of the peace, common assault, indecent assault, drunk drivers
and people convicted of handling offensive weapons."

Bill Aitken, for the Tories, said: "Frankly, there is nobody who is
sent to jail who should not be sent to jail. This is not done on a
whim. Sentencing is a matter for judges who act in the public interest.

"Part of the problem here is that there is a total lack of confidence
in the existing community disposals. There are far too many instances
of fines not being paid, of community service not being done, of
probation orders not being adhered to, and until such time as action
is taken under these headings, then the judiciary, the public will not
have confidence that they operate as a realistic deterrent to

David Sinclair, of Victim Support Scotland, said his organisation was
in favour of changing the approach, but only if the community
sentences which replaced prison terms were meaningful and had the
support of the public.

He said: "Mr MacAskill told us that, whatever form of community
sentence was handed down, it would be tough.

"We hope that he takes the public with him on this. The criminal
justice system has to be seen to be effective and the punishment has
to be seen to fit the crime.

"Victims of crime and witnesses have to feel the punishment is




I COMPLETELY agree with the minister on this. Sentences under six
months and in, many cases, sentences under 12 months are not only
pointless but ridiculously expensive and counter-productive.

This would also accord with the submissions put in to the Sentencing
Commission by the Scottish Prisons Service. They said that, for anyone
serving a sentence of less than 12 months, they cannot do anything
with them, they cannot do any rehabilitation work or use meaningful
drugs programmes because there is just not enough time.

The Howard League would go even further than that. We think there is
far too much reliance on prison as an answer to society's problems.

The number of people with mental health problems or personality
disorders is significant, as is the number with drink and drug
problems. Our prisons are effectively a cross between a casualty ward
and a psychiatric ward.

In many cases you are stripping people of the very things that stop
them from re-offending - contact with their family, jobs,
accommodation and community drug services.

There is often a disruption to medication and drug services when
people go into prison, making them much more likely to reoffend.

In Scotland we have the threat of privatisation. If we went ahead with
the New Labour plans, we would have in Scotland the highest number of
prisoners per head of population in private prisons - higher than
America. While the buildings themselves are fine, there are other
aspects in relation to safety of staff and rehabilitation and so on,
where they have not done so well.

We have as many community based disposals as we need but we don't use
them enough. Sheriffs still send too many people to prison.

John Scott chairs the Howard League for Penal Reform in




WE ARE likely to part company significantly with the Executive on the
issue of short-term custodial sentences.

Nobody is sent to jail who should not be sent to jail. This is not
done on a whim.

Sentencing is a matter for judges, who act in the public interest.
Part of the problem is a lack of confidence in the existing community

There are far too many instances of fines not being paid, of community
service not being done, of probation orders not being adhered to.

Until action is taken, the public will not have confidence that they
are a realistic deterrent.

Sentencers will not be persuaded unless the Executive can demonstrate
a determination to ensure that fines are paid by implementing powers
to deduct them by means of instalments from salaries and benefits.

The public also needs to know that community service is actually done.
It should be done visibly and it should be measurable. At the moment
there are far too many instances where the work is simply not being

So that will also have to be looked at. The reoffending rate in
respect of those doing community service is positively alarming. We
need to get real on this issue if we are to deter offending and avoid
people going to jail when they can be dealt with in the community.

One of the real problems is the fact that jail sentences now do not
have the deterrent effect that they should have. I accept that there
may be societal reasons for that but, despite what may be said by
others, we still effectively have the problem of early release.

Because of that, prison numbers will not go up.

Bill Aitken is the Tories' justice spokesman.



AT the heart of the minister's speech was a commitment to change
sentencing, ending many short-term custodial sentences.

Kenny MacAskill made it clear this was the way he wanted the justice
system to go but he provided no detail.

It was unclear last night how many offenders would be spared jail and
which offences, if any, would not come with prison sentences any more.


KENNY MacAskill committed the Executive to recruiting 1,000 extra
police officers.

Or rather, he said he would recruit the "equivalent of" 1,000 extra
police. It is not clear exactly what this means but it is certainly
not as definitive as the SNP manifesto commitment.

Also, there was no timescale mentioned yesterday, which means it could
be as much as four years away.


THE minister said the SNP government would launch a crackdown on
underage drinkers and those who sell alcohol to them.

He warned licensees that they had a responsibility not to serve
alcohol to youngsters "or face the consequences". This would almost
certainly mean the removal of licenses from offenders and harsh
penalties for youngsters who are caught buying alcohol.


THE minister said he wanted to move to ban discounted alcohol
promotions in shops and off licenses.

This has already been done in pubs, but Mr MacAskill wants to extend
it to off-sales as well.

The previous Executive gave local licensing boards the discretion to
act in their area and while Mr MacAskill gave no details, he may
decide to set tougher, national guidelines.


THE SNP government will launch a nationwide campaign against violence,
focusing on knife crime.

Mr MacAskill wants to see role models, such as footballers, come into
schools and spread an anti-knife message. He believes that the culture
of carrying a knife is to blame for much of the violence and believes
that if he can change that, he can make progress on knife crime itself.


KENNY MacAskill said he wanted to create a Serious Crime

This will be an FBI-style unit, bringing expertise in from various
areas of the police, to fight organised crime.

However, this proposal is very similar - if not identical - to plans
unveiled by the last Labour-Lib Dem Executive for this sort of body.

It does look as if the SNP has simply inherited this


THE minister said he wanted to stop private companies from running any
new prisons in Scotland.

This is significant because it had been suggested recently that the
SNP would try to turn Kilmarnock, Scotland's existing private prison,
into a state-run institution. This now seems unlikely, with Mr
MacAskill now determined to stop private companies running either of
the two new prisons in Scotland.


KENNY MacAskill said he wanted to re-invest the proceeds of crime in
services for young people in local communities.

He announced that money taken from criminals would be used to build up
community facilities for young people.

The minister said there was currently A#8 million available in money
taken from criminals and this would now be invested in this way. He
said he hoped business would match the investment.