Source:   Scotsman
Contact:    Tue, 25 Nov 1997
Author:   JENNY BOOTH Home Affairs Correspondent


A SHERIFF has criticised the Scottish home affairs minister Henry McLeish
over suggestions that the courts are failing to sentence enough criminals
to community service orders.

Sheriff James Farrell said yesterday it was "strange" that the Government
should say sheriffs were underusing the instrument, when a drugs offender
could not start a CSO in Edinburgh for eight weeks because of the waiting

Yesterday Sheriff Farrell said it was "very unsatisfactory" to be told by
social workers that David Nicolson, 22, a drugs offender, could not begin
his 160hour community service order for up to eight weeks because of
"current high demand".

Nicolson pleaded guilty to possessing cannabis in his home at Broomview
House, Sighthill Wynd, Edinburgh, on 17 July last year with intent to
supply it to his girlfriend.

"At a time when we are reading reports in newspapers of statements that the
Government takes the view that community disposal is underutilised, we
look at this report and see that so far from being underutilised, it would
appear the courts are using it so much that the service is overwhelmed,"
said Sheriff Farrell.

He implied the Government was to blame for underfunding the noncustodial
sentences it was purporting to promote.

"My understanding is that community service is entirely funded by central
government," said Sheriff Farrell.It seems strange to say the courts are
not using community service sufficiently, but community service says it is
being used so much that, given the resources it has, it cannot meet the

The sheriff's outburst at Edinburgh Sheriff Court, reflecting general anger
among sheriffs around Scotland, came on the same day that Mr McLeish met
members of the Sheriffs' Association to discuss justice issues.

Last week sheriffs threatened to boycott the meeting, which they had
arranged, in protest at Mr McLeish's remarks on Tuesday. They went ahead
with the meeting only after Mr McLeish wrote to The Scotsman on Friday to
clarify his remarks.

What Mr McLeish had said was that the proportion of people jailed by
sheriffs had risen by a "dramatic" 40 per cent between 1990 and 1995, at
considerable public cost but without cutting reoffending.

"We need a wider debate on value for money, and alternatives to custody
must form part of that debate," he said.

As a backlash sprang up among sheriffs, Mr McLeish acted again on Friday to
make it plain that he had not intended to direct sheriffs on how to
sentence, but had simply called for a debate on sentencing issues.

The president of the Sheriffs' Association, Sandy Wilkinson, replied by
saying: "We are content to treat the matter as in the past."

But individual sheriffs are clearly less prepared to allow oil to be poured
on troubled waters.

Duncan Macauley, head of operations at Edinburgh Council's social work
department, clarified that the eightweek delay was because the Wester
Hailes criminal justice area office, which would control Nicolson's CSO,
was operating with only four staff, while one employee was off sick and
another post was advertised.

The office had a heavy workload, with 121 active cases at the moment.
Across the Capital criminal justice social workers were working at full
capacity with nearly 700 CSOs in progress, said Mr Macaulay  but it was
only Wester Hailes that was suffering delays.

We are trying to ensure we improve the position as soon as we can, said Mr

A Scottish Office spokesman said last night that civil servants were not
aware of any national problems with noncustodial sentences, although there
might be local bottlenecks.

In 199596 the Scottish courts imposed 12,213 communitybased punishments:
5,725 community orders, 5,098 probation orders and 1,390 supervised
attendance orders.

In 1995, a total of 19,030 convicted offenders arrived at Scottish prisons,
, according to prison service figures. more than 7,500 for defaulting on a

Funding of communitybased sentences is to rise in 199798 to 33 million,
from 31.5 million in 199697 and 28.8 million the year before.