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Scotland – a far off land of which we know too little?

Penelope Gibbs
24 Nov 2017

You would never know from what you read in London based newspapers that Scotland had a completely different criminal justice system, and one which was looking way more successful than that in England and Wales. We are always exhorted to learn from good practice, wherever it comes from, but I see little evidence of that happening in relation to Scotland. I myself, a criminal justice policy anorak, know little of what is happening there. Hence a short trip next week, which I will feed back on.

Meanwhile I was so embarrassed by how little I did know that I’ve been mugging up a bit. Its impressive. Since the SNP became the majority party in 2011, they have followed a progressive criminal justice policy, committed to reducing the prison population and to making rehabilitation work better. They have re-organised their system, but in a completely different way to England and Wales.

The key developments have been a decrease in the prison population – by 8 per cent, from 8,179 in 2011-12 to 7,552 in 2016-17, and a significant (18% in ten years) increase in the use of community sentences.  In the same period the prison population in England and Wales has risen (not at lot but predicted to rise further), and our use of community sentences has fallen by 24%. So why is Scotland on a different trajectory?

The main reason is that they have a brave government, committed to a progressive criminal justice policy. When Labour was the dominant party in the Scottish Assembly it followed New Labour punitive policies, and the prison population went up steadily. But the SNP has taken action to reverse this and have changed the narrative on criminal justice. They have

  1. Cancelled the building of a new large women’s prison (whereas in England and Wales we are planning to build several)
  2. Brought in a legal presumption against the use of short sentences – prison terms of less than three months are not banned, but judges have to give a pretty cogent reason for using them. The SNP are currently proposing legislation to extend the presumption against short prison sentences to those up to twelve months.
  3. Introduced a new community sentence – the Community Payback Order, and set up a totally new public sector agency to champion and run community justice in Scotland, working in partnership with local public sector and voluntary sector agencies.

In the same time period the Westminster government has not reduced any sentence tariffs, and has increased the tariff for many offences (mostly indirectly via sentencing guidelines). It has privatised most probation services, and has made probation even less community focused than it was.

People who work in Scotland assure me that the Scottish public hold the same views on the importance of punishment as the English. So maybe the big difference is that the SNP has had the courage to push through not particularly popular policies, and a determination to use a different narrative to bring the public with them. This is Michael Matheson, Minister for Justice speaking in the Scottish Assembly

“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.”

Our Lord Chancellor has said that he wants the prison population to come down, but not that he wants to reduce it. Its a crucial difference.