Community justice penal reforms: minister's speech

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson addresses Scottish Parliament on proposed reforms to the penal system via community justice.

Presiding Officer, in the summer I launched this Government's Vision and Priorities for Justice in Scotland which laid out our intention to adopt a more progressive, evidence-based approach, supported by partners across the justice sector and beyond. This approach underpins our determination to ensure that we live in safe, cohesive and resilient communities.

In the Programme for Government published last week we pledged to extend the presumption against short sentences to 12 months.

This announcement was welcomed by former Justice Secretaries across the political spectrum who recognise that the time has come to adopt a more progressive and transformative perspective.

It is a commitment consistent with our drive to create a more progressive, evidence-based justice system.

This very week marks the 20th anniversary of the devolution referendum. In the intervening years this Parliament has done great things, and members across the Chamber can feel rightly proud of their achievements. But one area in which we have made little progress is that of penal reform.

In the period 1999 to 2000, the average daily prison population across Scotland's prisons was less than 6,000. During 2015 to 2016 that figure was more than 7,600. This means that, since the inception of this Parliament, we have witnessed an increase of nearly 30% in the number of people locked up on any given day.

We know that short prison sentences do little to rehabilitate people, or to reduce the likelihood of their reoffending. We know that short-term imprisonment disrupts families and communities, and adversely affects employment opportunities and stable housing – the very things that evidence shows support desistence from offending. We know that this is both a poor use of public resources and a waste of human potential.

There will always be cases in which the court rightly takes the view that a prison sentence is absolutely justified, but for those individuals who do end up in custody, we need to think beyond just bricks and mortar. That change is part of the rationale behind our plans for the female custodial estate.

In July, I witnessed the start of demolition work on Cornton Vale prison. The Scottish Prison Service have now commenced the planning and public consultation processes for the creation of its replacement.

Although located on the existing site of Cornton Vale it will provide an entirely new approach for the custodial care of around 80 women. This new facility will be run using therapeutic community principles and will incorporate gender-specific and trauma-informed practice, addressing the particular needs of the female prison population.

For women who do not require the level of security, or intensive interventions provided by the national facility, we will provide community custody units. In July I announced that the first two units will be located in Glasgow and either Fife or Dundee. I can today inform Parliament that the Scottish Prison Service has acquired a site in Maryhill for the first unit in Glasgow and that the second will be in Dundee.

These new community units will assist women to maintain links with their families and accommodate them close to both their communities and the agencies that can ensure they are able to move away from offending.

Work on these units will respond to the changing profile of the female prison population, and the risk profile of women in custody. The Scottish Prison Service plan that these first two units, and the national facility, will be open by the end of 2020.

This work is part of a wider transformation within our prisons, professionalising the role of prison officers, ensuring a focus on rehabilitation and supporting the re-integration of people leaving custody.

These developments are encouraging, but I would still like to see our criminal justice system have a stronger emphasis on robust community sentences that focus on addressing the causes of offending behaviour.

In the 2008 report of the Scottish Prisons Commission, Henry McLeish wrote that, in order to better target imprisonment and to make it more effective, it should be reserved for 'people whose offences are so serious that no other form of punishment will do, and for those who pose a threat of serious harm to the public'.

This aim is described as the necessary touchstone of a society that wanted to break with the idea that the only real punishment is prison. If we truly want to hold ourselves up as a modern and progressive nation, then I believe that this is the foundation that our community justice system needs to build on.

The First Minister has made clear her ambition to build an inclusive and socially just Scotland. Our justice system has a crucial role to play in shaping that future and in helping to tackle social inequality.

A just, equitable and inclusive society is one that needs to be supported by a progressive, evidence-based justice system.

A system which works with communities to reduce – and ultimately to prevent – further offending. A system which holds individuals to account for their offending, but which ultimately supports them to make positive contributions to our communities.

Over the past decade this Government has taken steps to end our reliance on custody and move towards effective community sentences that enhance public safety and promote rehabilitation, and that evidence shows are more effective at reducing re-offending and thus reducing the risk of further victims.

When this Government first came to power more people were given custodial sentences than community sentences. Since then there has been an increasing shift in favour of community sentences: the latest figures show that, in 2015 to 2016, over 5,000 more community sentences were imposed than custodial sentences.

That's 5,000 more opportunities for individuals to pay back for the harm they have caused. It's also fewer prison receptions taking up resources in our prison system. And fewer people having to make the difficult transition from custody back into the community.

That transition also happens for people held on remand, which is why the Programme for Government also outlines our continued backing for supported and supervised bail, helping individuals to remain in the community under supervision.

This Government will continue to promote the delivery of effective, evidence-based interventions designed to prevent and reduce further offending. Our National Strategy for Community Justice sets out our commitment to shifting criminal justice interventions upstream, using the least intrusive intervention at the earliest point.

It encourages justice partners to maximise opportunities for the appropriate use of diversion from prosecution to help address the underlying causes of offending, and ensure people get access to drug, alcohol, mental health or other appropriate services.

We remain committed to supporting local authorities in delivering robust community sentences that deliver tangible benefits for our communities.

Funding for criminal justice social work remains at record levels: we invested an additional £4 million in community sentences in 2016 to 2017 and again in 2017 to 2018.

Last week we announced legislation which would give our sentencers broader options and powers for using electronic monitoring. And just this morning we published the analysis of a public consultation on our next steps.

Electronic monitoring is already an important tool in the delivery of justice. It carries a punitive element and offers a range of options to improve public protection while allowing an individual to maintain their employment and family links.

When used to enforce curfew conditions, it can provide stability to those whose offending is part and parcel of a chaotic lifestyle. The forthcoming legislation will expand the range of options and enable the use of new technology, such as GPS.

Sitting alongside community sentences, the presumption against short sentences underlines our determination to move away from short-term custodial sentences.

It is of course a presumption, and not a ban. Sentencing discretion remains with the courts, and it is for the court to decide the appropriate sentence based on the facts at hand. The purpose of the presumption is to ensure that short sentences are imposed when they are the only suitable option.

As I have made clear, our vision for community justice is predicated on an evidence-based approach. That evidence shows that the use of very short sentences has fallen over the past decade. However, it also shows that we need to go further if we are to make a real impact on Scotland's high rate of imprisonment and the negative consequences of short-term sentences. That is why we consulted on proposals to strengthen the presumption.

The responses to the consultation were overwhelmingly supportive of an extension and the majority of those who expressed a view favoured a presumption against sentences of 12 months or less.

There was, however, a clear view that any extension of the presumption would need to be accompanied by a commitment to developing and resourcing community sentences, and concerns were voiced by a number of respondents over the need to ensure the court was able to take steps to protect victims, especially victims of domestic violence.

Since the consultation closed this Government has worked with stakeholders across the justice sector to address these very concerns.

In March of this year I brought before this Parliament the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill. This Bill contains a number of provisions specifically designed to protect the victims of domestic abuse.

It will ensure that when sentencing, courts are required to have regard of the need to protect victims from further offences, and contains provisions which will make it mandatory for the court to consider imposing an Non-Harassment Order following a conviction.

And of course the Bill contains the new domestic abuse offence – carrying a tough maximum sentence of 14 years – which will improve the justice system's ability to hold perpetrators of domestic abuse to account.

These provisions place the safety of victims at the heart of this legislation, and I urge members across this Chamber to support this important Bill in the coming months.

And I can confirm that we will work, in collaboration with Scottish Women's Aid, to ensure that developments in electronic monitoring will improve the safety of women and children affected by domestic abuse.

Presiding Officer, we have also already taken steps to create a more progressive landscape for the delivery of community sentences, with our new model coming into effect on 1 April this year. This model places decision-making locally with those who know their communities best; who understand the problems in their areas; and who will be most affected by community justice issues.

Under the new model, local planning, delivery and collaboration are complemented by national leadership and strategic direction provided by a new body, Community Justice Scotland.

Community Justice Scotland will raise awareness of the benefits of community sentences and build public support. Working with community justice partners and stakeholders, it will drive improvements in service delivery in order to build safer, stronger and more inclusive communities.

I believe that in combination, these measures address the concerns expressed by respondents to the consultation. That is why we will only implement the extended presumption once the relevant provisions of the Domestic Abuse Bill are in force.

Subject to approval by Parliament, I anticipate that the extended presumption will therefore be in place by the end of 2018.

Presiding Officer, this Government believes that extending the presumption is in line with our progressive approach to criminal justice policy. More than this: in concert with our ongoing approach to delivering safer and stronger communities, it is about being the progressive and socially inclusive nation we want to be.


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