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"Offenders who default on fines spared jail" by Michael Howie, The Scotsman

3rd October 2005

Thousands of offenders who fail to pay their fines will be spared jail under moves likely to be approved by ministers to tackle record prison numbers.

Pilot schemes running in Glasgow and Ayr have resulted in more than 700 offenders who defaulted on their fines in the last five months given community-based supervised attendance orders (SAOs) instead of the usual few days behind bars.

Most have a long list of previous convictions and began offending in their teenage years.

Sheriffs can currently either send someone who does not pay to prison or make them subject to an SAO, but in most cases a brief jail sentence is preferred.

But the pilot schemes make it mandatory for sheriffs to impose an SAO for anyone brought back to court for failing to pay fines under £500 imposed for "low tariff" crimes, such as breach of the peace, minor theft and road traffic offences.

The scheme's backers say jailing people for a few days for not paying their fine wastes money and fails to tackle their likelihood of reoffending or improve their employment prospects.

An average of 61 fine defaulters are in prison at any time, costing around £2 million a year.

Apex Scotland, which administers SAOs throughout the country and is behind the Glasgow pilot, said the scheme has been a success and insists it is not a "soft option".

Jim McArthur, the charity's Glasgow unit manager, said: "About 300 people have completed their orders and we've had around 50 positive outcomes, where we've got them into employment or further training.

"People might say it's a soft option but we are throwing responsibility at them. If they fail to make an appointment they have to give a good reason. They are given three warnings then brought back to court for a breach of the order."

Cathy Jamieson, the justice minister, has pledged to introduce a raft of measures to reduce reoffending rates, with mandatory SAOs likely to feature in a new Summary Justice Bill to be introduced next year.

An Executive spokesman said: "Part of the Summary Justice Bill is to look at reducing the number of minor offenders sent to prison and supervised attendance orders are part of that process. We will see more of this type of project if the pilots evaluate well."

The extended use of SAOs for fine defaulters was welcomed by Kenny MacAskill, the SNP's justice spokesman, who said: "It is ridiculous that we are paying a fortune as taxpayers to lock up people at great cost who are no danger to society and who have only committed minor offences."

© The Scotsman

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