Scotland politics

MSPs extend restrictions on short prison sentences

Greenock Prison Image copyright Getty Images

An extension of the presumption against short sentences handed out in Scottish courts been signed off by MSPs.

Since 2011, judges have been instructed not to impose a prison sentence of three months or less, unless no other punishment is deemed "appropriate".

Holyrood has now voted by 83 to 26 to extending this presumption to sentences of 12 months or less.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said community sentences were "much more effective" for rehabilitation.

The Scottish Conservatives opposed the move when it was discussed by the justice committee, and did so again in the final vote - with the party's Liam Kerr claiming that the government was "taking a risk with the safety of the public".

The move was introduced via secondary legislation, and having been approved at committee level only needed to be signed off by MSPs after a brief statement from Mr Yousaf on Wednesday.

Mr Yousaf told the chamber he wanted a "smarter" justice system that actually reduces crime.

He has previously argued that "community sentences are not a soft option", and that there was "strong support" for extending the presumption against short sentences so long as community-based alternatives are adequately resources.

Image caption Humza Yousaf will put secondary legislation forward for a vote at Holyrood

Figures for 2018 showed that those sentenced to short jail terms in Scotland were reconvicted almost twice as often in the next 12 months as those given community payback orders.

Mr Yousaf told the justice committee that extending the presumption against short sentences was "not a silver bullet", but part of a "broader, evidence-led, preventative approach".

He said: "The evidence is clear that short periods of imprisonment do not work. They disrupt the things that are most likely to help to reduce offending, such as family relationships, housing, employment and access to healthcare and support.

"If we take a step back and look at the issue, the evidence is absolutely unequivocal. That's why you have academics and criminologists saying they support the presumption against short sentences.

"Because when it comes to rehabilitation, there's absolutely no doubt that community sentences addressing the root causes and reasons why people offend are much more effective for rehabilitation than short custodial sentences."

Image copyright Getty Images

Conservative members of the justice committee opposed the move, with convener Margaret Mitchell saying she was "not convinced this is a sensible way forward to protect the public".

The party's justice spokesman Liam Kerr warned that victims might look at the new system and feel it did not contain a sufficient "element of punishment and public protection".

Mr Yousaf told the committee there was "genuinely a job to do" in increasing the rate of community payback orders which are completed.

He added: "If we are to take the public with us, we should present to them the evidence that shows that we should, if we want fewer victims of crime, rehabilitate more offenders. If we rehabilitate offenders, there will, of course, be fewer victims of crime."

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