Pubdate: Sat, 4 Oct 1997
Source: The Scotsman, Edinburgh, UK 
Contact: McLeish plea to judges over jail sentences

Home Affairs Correspondent

THE Scottish home affairs minister, Henry McLeish, has called on judges,
sheriffs and fiscals to reconsider their attitudes to punishment in a
radical review which would keep lowlevel offenders out of prison while
jailing murderers and sex offenders for longer. 

Scottish Office ministers have already started talks with the Lord
Advocate, Lord Hardie of Blackhall  who is ultimately in charge of
prosecutions  and with the Lord President, Lord Rodger, Scotland's most
senior judge, on new approaches to punishment. 

Mr McLeish issued a "most kind and courteous" request for every sheriff and
judge to join a debate about how the criminal justice system could be
better tailored to respond to the scourge of drugs, and to protect the
public by stopping people from reoffending. 

"I'm extending a hand to the judiciary now to take part in dialogue," Mr
McLeish said in an interview at the Scottish Prison Service annual

"In the public mind there are instances where offences take place where
they don't feel the punishment fits the crime. But at the other end of the
spectrum there are clearly some people in prison who needn't be there and
shouldn't be there, and we must tackle this." 

He went on: "I believe we need more alternatives to prison which are
hardhitting and hard headed but take place in the community. 

"We at the Scottish Office will do our side of the bargain. By Christmas I
will have on my desk a report on alternatives to custody, reinforcing what
is already available and giving more options to judges and sheriffs." 

He added that part of the bargain had to be complemented by a change in
thinking in the court system generally. "I do understand that some judges
and sheriffs feel that a noncustodial option is not a safe or a sound one,
and could be considered soft. We have to prove to them it is not. 

"We have got to get out of the mindset of just putting people away, that
the only option is the prison option. 

"About 20 per cent of the prison population is inside for six months or
less. While accepting there could be some serious crimes involved, it seems
there is a target population where the interests of the taxpayer and of
public protection could all be bettered by having a strong community

The criminal justice system's task was to protect the public, by jailing
dangerous people and preventing reoffending, while not becoming too
expensive for the taxpayer. 

But Scottish jails were struggling to rehabilitate inmates because they
were expensively clogged up with thousands of nonviolent prisoners. 

Many were needlessly serving very short sentences for fine default, others
were in and out of jail for petty drugsrelated offences. 

Cornton Vale women's prison, in particular, was full of vulnerable,
drugdamaged women who posed no danger to society, but in the grim
environment of a prison could become a danger to themselves, he said. 

Such people would be better served by punishment and rehabilitation in the
community, so that their problems could be tackled and they could be
challenged out of their cycle of offending. 

Mr McLeish said that fewer addicts would reoffend if there was continuing
care from the health service and social workers before and after prison to
help inmates stabilise their habit and to wean them off drugs. 

He announced he was releasing 2 million so that by 1998 every Scottish
sheriff could impose supervised attendance orders, ordering fine defaulters
to attend councilrun work placements, classes or drug counselling or
psychological sessions for a set number of hours, instead of being jailed. 

At present SAO programmes are in place near only 19 of the 49 sheriff
courts, and 22 of the 67 district courts. At an average cost of 450, they
are cheaper than the 600 bill for jailing a fine defaulter for a week. In
1994, 9,000 fine defaulters were jailed in Scotland. 

Electronic tagging is due to be piloted in Scotland within months, and Mr
McLeish said he hoped it would be an effective alternative to prison. 

Charles Rose, the chief executive of English tagging contractor Geografix,
said after only 26 months of trials it was too early to calculate
reoffending rates, but he added: "The tagging order demands that people
live an ordered life in the community, which prison can never do. Perhaps
it brings them to the stage where they give up being criminals earlier
rather than later." 

Mr McLeish said that the public was still very fearful about how the most
serious crimes were dealt with, and these fears had to be allayed. 

"On the question of murderers and serious sex offenders, there could be
instances where longer sentences are required for public protection," he

He speculated that in future sex offenders could be given a combined prison
sentence and tagging order, so that when they had served their time they
could still be intensely monitored in case they were a public danger. 

He held firm against handing out more information to the public on sex
offenders who were about to be released from jail. "We have had trouble in
communities in Aberdeen and Stirling, and we have nearly had vigilantism

Last night the Lord Advocate was away and not available to comment on Mr
McLeish's ideas. 

A Crown Office spokesman said: "The minister has consulted the law officers
on implementation of the provisions of the Crime and Punishment (Scotland)
Act, including those which relate to sentencing." 

The Lord President was said to be too busy to comment.