Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Alison McInnes MSP has today announced her party’s plans to introduce a new robust presumption against jail terms of less than a year in a move to reduce reoffending levels and support rehabilitation.
A presumption against prison sentences of three months or less was introduced in Scotland in 2010. As part of their manifesto proposals for the Holyrood elections in May, Liberal Democrats will put forward an extension of the presumption to cover prison sentences of 12 months or less.
The most recent figures from the Scottish Government show that, despite the existing presumption, 4,126 people were given a custodial sentence of up to three months in 2013-14. A further 5,214 were given sentences of between 3 and 6 months.
The policy would reduce reoffending, as well as dramatically reduce the prison population and save millions of pounds. New figures secured through parliamentary questions showed that the average cost of a community sentence such as a Community Payback Order is £1,900, compared to £37,000 for a prisoner place.
Under the Lib Dem plans, prison terms for those committing serious crimes would remain alongside tough community justice programmes for those no longer given custodial sentences.
Setting out the proposals, Ms McInnes said: “One of the main priorities for Scottish Liberal Democrats is having a criminal justice system where if someone breaks the law they are swiftly brought to justice. But we also believe offenders deserve a chance to get back on track and community rehabilitation is a fundamental part of that.
“Scotland has one of the highest prison populations per capita in Western Europe. But prison has proven to be hugely ineffective, even destructive, for people given short-term sentences. It does little to dissuade them from offending again, with 60% of offenders sent to jail for 3 months or less re-convicted within a year of release.
“A prison place costs £37,000 a year – much more than effective community-based sentences like Community Payback Orders which cost on average £1,900. That means this policy will also enable the Scottish Prison Service to really focus on engaging with more serious long-term offenders, not those who experts have deemed ‘more troubling than dangerous’.
“The robust community justice programmes we would ensure are available to judges and sheriffs also help provide stability and ensure successful rehabilitation. These programmes help avoid people becoming homeless or losing touch with their families – the links which even a short stint inside can destroy.
“Liberal Democrats want safe and secure communities in Scotland and this is just one of series of bold proposals to reduce crime that we will be putting forward in the run up to May.”
The presumption would still allow judges to send people to prison for less than 12 months but only in exceptional cases.
The Scottish prison population is one of the highest in Western Europe, at 142 prisoners per 100,000 people.
Henry McLeish’s Prisons Commission concluded many offenders carrying out short-term sentences were ‘more troubling than dangerous’ and their being sent to prison distracts the Scottish Prison Service from engaging with more serious long-term offenders.
Audit Scotland has said the total cost of reoffending is £3 billion a year. The SPS accounts for 2013-14 show the average cost of a prisoner place is £37,059 (a rolling 3 year average).
59% of those given sentences of 3 months or less reoffend within one year. This falls to 53% of those given between three and six months and continues to fall steadily thereafter. Reconviction rates for people given a community sentence are more than 10% lower than those released for prison.