News

Reducing ineffective short prison terms

Published: 17 May 2019 09:15
Part of:
Law and order

Order published to extend presumption against short prison sentences.

Extending the presumption against short prison sentences will encourage the greater use of more effective community sentences and break cycles of reoffending, Ministers have said.
 
An affirmative order has now been published that, subject to the approval of Parliament, will extend the existing presumption from three to 12 months and come into force this summer.
 
People released from a custodial sentence of 12 months or less are reconvicted nearly twice as often as those sentenced to serve a Community Payback Order (CPO).
 
Community Safety Minister Ash Denham said:
 
“We have made clear that the presumption is not a ban and its extension will not abolish short prison sentences. Clearly prison remains the right option for those who pose a serious risk to public safety and sentencing decisions will remain a matter for the independent judiciary. However, we want to ensure courts consider the most appropriate sentence in all cases and imprison people only when there is no suitable alternative.
 
“Disruptive and counterproductive short prison sentences often lead to homelessness, unemployment and family breakdown – making it harder for people to reintegrate on release and increasing the likelihood that they will be drawn into a cycle of offending.
 
“The introduction of a presumption against sentences of three months or less and use of CPOs since their introduction in 2011 have, alongside other reforms, helped achieve a 19-year low in reconviction rates. Evidence shows alternatives to custody are more successful in supporting rehabilitation and preventing reoffending, ultimately leading to fewer victims and safer communities.”

The Scottish Government is protecting ring-fenced funding for Justice Social Work of more than £100 million in 2019-20 – investing £9.5 million a year more on community justice services such as community sentences and electronic monitoring compared to 2015-16.

Bill Fitzpatrick, Director of Operations, Community Justice Scotland, said:
 
“Community Justice Scotland welcomes the extension of the presumption against short sentences to 12 months. It demonstrates a commitment to change and is a step towards smart, effective, more robust justice.
 
“Evidence shows this extension could reduce offending behaviour if strategic support is given to local service providers and communities to ensure that people pay back for the harm done and the underlying causes of crime are addressed.”
 
Background
 
The current statutory presumption against short-term sentences was approved by the Scottish Parliament through the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010. The Act requires that the court must not pass a sentence of imprisonment for three months or less on a person unless it considers that no other sentence is appropriate. The court must record the reasons for its sentencing decision.
 
Of the individuals receiving a custodial sentence, the proportion of those sentences that were of three months or less has fallen from 35% in 2010-11 to 27% in 2017-18. Extending the presumption will help ensure alternatives to custody are considered in all cases before Scotland’s summary courts.

The public consultation on the existing presumption against short prison sentences found a majority (85%) in favour of extending it beyond the current three months.

The Scottish Government committed in its 2018-19 Programme for Government to extend the presumption to 12 months or less, once additional safeguards for victims in the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 were in force.

Driven by longer minimum terms for life prisoners, lengthier sentences for serious crimes including homicide and sexual offences, and a rise in pre-trial remand, Scotland’s imprisonment rate is the highest in western Europe. While accounting for 12% of the prison population on any given day, short term prisoners sentenced to 12 months or less represent around 79% of all custodial sentences, contributing to a high ‘churn’ of people to be processed by Scottish Prison Service staff.