Irish Penal Reform Trust

Scotland: Using short term sentences does more harm than good.

9th June 2009

(Originally published in the Carrick Gazette, 9th June 2009.)

Locking up prisoners for short periods of six months or less could endanger public safety, prison chiefs have said. There are limits to the rehabilitation work that can be done, with inmates also exposed to a "university of crime".

The proposal is contained in the Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill, which came before Holyrood's Justice Committee.

Scottish Prison Service (SPS) chief executive Mike Ewart told the committee the Bill is aimed at making the "best use" of prisons. "One of the arguments we've been advancing is that using short term sentences is putting the community generally at greater risk," he said.

Sheriffs' claims that short sentences can give relief to communities were questioned by Mr Ewart. He said that while this was "obviously true" in its own terms, it "needs to be balanced against the question of whether a short term sentence does more harm than good".

The Bill would introduce a presumption against sentences of six months or less and see sheriffs forced to provide clear reasons for handing down such a disposal. The SNP administration instead wants to make greater use of tough custodial sentences but says it is not a tactic to reduce overcrowding. The prison service deals with about 8,000 criminals a year serving these shorter sentences.

Mr Ewart told Lib Dem Robert Brown there was a "strong consensus" among academics that short term sentences do more harm than good.

Rona Sweeney, director of prisons at the SPS, added: "I'm glad we're having this discussion, because it is our public duty to alert you to the limitations of what we can do with very short sentences." The only rehabilitation jail can usually provide for short term inmates will be in healthcare, Ms Sweeney added, particularly those with an addiction.

Inmates could also be exposed to a "university of crime" when they go inside according to Mr Ewart, as they mix with with other more hardened criminals.

The current prison population stands at about 8,500 - but Mr Ewart said this masks the 40,000 individuals admissions that the service deals with in the course of a year. He said: "My long term contention has always been that we are already locking up too many people and making ourselves as a community less safe as a result. If we build more capacity, it won't provide us with elastic in the system. It will fill up."

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2009, All Rights Reserved.

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