Scottish low-level offenders 'will do manual labour'

Offenders clearing snow
Image caption Offenders were used to clear snow and put down grit in Edinburgh

A new law has come into force across Scotland which means low-level criminals can be ordered to do manual labour instead of serving time in jail.

From now on, courts will be encouraged to consider imposing a Community Payback Order as an alternative to jail terms of less than three months.

It means offenders can be tasked with removing graffiti or renovation work.

Labour said it was a "dark day for justice" but ministers said jail was the right place for serious offenders.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said: "But at the other end of the scale, we need to address Scotland's appalling reoffending rate for low-level offenders.

"These offenders are going in and out of prison, time and time again and committing more crime in communities upon release.

"All the evidence shows that getting offenders out doing some manual labour in the community works far better than short-term prison sentences and actually stops them committing further crimes."

Apart from making offenders work, payback orders will also allow courts to require them to undertake treatment to try to address the reasons why they have committed crimes.

The new system replaces community service orders, which have been viewed with suspicion by many judges and sheriffs.

Image caption Barlinnie's governor said it was hard to do anything meaningful with people serving three months or less

The Scottish government's original goal was to move away from jail terms of less than six months - but opposition parties in Holyrood objected and only with Liberal Democrat votes was the compromise possible.

Mr MacAskill has said judges would still be able to impose three-month sentences on violent criminals if they believed the punishment fitted the crime.

But Labour's justice spokesman Richard Baker said he feared the order could be also used as an alternative to jail for serious offenders.

He said last year there were 6,000 cases of violence, knife crime, indecency and serious assault or attempted murder where the offender was given a three-month sentence.

'Recipe for disaster'

"The SNP should hang their heads in shame," he said.

"These plans are a recipe for disaster and I fear it is only a matter of time before one of these offenders who avoids jail goes on to even more serious offences."

However, the governor of Barlinnie, Scotland's largest jail, said he supported the new measures.

Derek McGill said it was frustrating when the same offenders repeatedly came back to the prison to serve short sentences.

"We don't do much for them in prison because we've got them for a relatively short time.

"This will take away the routine work that we do with these repeat offenders and it will mean we can concentrate on doing more meaningful stuff with the people who are here for slightly longer."

A fast-track scheme, which would see offenders sent out to perform manual labour within hours of being sentenced, was announced on Sunday.

The pilot is to be run at Glasgow Sheriff Court.

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