Overcrowded jails have more than 1,000 convicts currently behind bars serving less than a year – but a change to sentencing rules would not dramatically reduce numbers and cost more, Scotland’s prison chief has told MSPs.
Taking evidence on plans to restrict the use of short prison sentences, Holyrood’s Justice Committee heard that a high “churn” of inmates are repeat offenders.
More than half of people jailed for less than 12 months are convicted of another crime within a year – and a third end up back in prison.
Colin McConnell, chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, revealed that on Tuesday morning there were 1,049 people serving a sentence under a year, while prisons were over their capacity by 573 inmates.
The plans would reduce the average number of inmates by 200 on any given day, he forecast, adding: “We could still see a significant number of people in our care serving sentences of less than 12 months.”
Commenting on the proposal, Mr McConnell defended the current decision making by sheriffs who do not “kneejerk into sending people to prison”, and warned against any attempt to “shackle the judiciary”.
He also suggested that keeping people out of prison by replacing custodial sentences with community payback orders (CPOs) would increase the financial burden on the justice system.
“It would be wrong to think that keeping people in the community would be a cheaper option, I fundamentally challenge that”, Mr McConnell said, adding: “This will require substantial financial and other resources and competencies right across the system.”
On the issue of funding and resources, Mr McConnell highlighted how, on the morning he was giving evidence to MSPs, there were 8,242 imprisoned people across Scotland but only the capacity for 7,669.
Money for the running costs of custodial services “has been driven down year on year on year” he claimed, adding: “It is extraordinarily difficult to focus progressively on 8,200 people at a time when 1,000 of them are with us for a matter of weeks.”
Other witnesses spoke of their support for the plan but reiterated the message that funding to successfully implement the policy so that it benefits society, victims and the culprits would have to be significantly increased.
James Maybee, a representative for Social Work Scotland who work with those given CPOs, suggested that people who would avoid prison sentences under the new proposals “bring with them much-more complex needs”.
“There’s a feeling in criminal justice social work that we are running to stand still at the moment in terms of the demands on the service and the complexity of the work that we are doing,” he said.
Expressing support for the principle of keeping people out of jail, Mr Maybee said: “What we’re all trying to achieve is to stop reoffending or being reconvicted and causing harm.”
He added that, while there is a place for prison, “it should be restricted for those who are causing serious offences, who are at the highest risk of causing serious harm.”
Kate Wallace, chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said: “From victims’ perspectives they want to have confidence in the criminal justice system and confidence that nobody is going to be in the situation they found themselves in. That means putting enough resources behind the community payback orders.
“These orders need to be heavily resourced from a social work point of view, they also need to be targeting the offending behaviour and the underlying causes of it.
“We need to make sure – if we are going to go down this road – that community payback orders are as well resourced as possible to be as effective as possible otherwise reoffending will continue and victims will not have confidence in the justice system at all.”