Last week Kenny MacAskill reiterated his commitment to not using short-term prison sentences and instead utilising community alternatives. The SNP wanted to eliminate sentences of 6 months or less – I would take this further and end any sentence of 12 months or less.
I am not going to lay claim to being any kind of expert in criminal justice but I have spent the last four years working in prisons and Young Offenders Institutions for a voluntary organisation which gives me a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t – and short term sentences don’t work.
What is the purpose of prison? To punish, to act as a deterrent to offending, to keep communities safe, to reduce reoffending. The Scottish Prison Service sees their aims as only the latter two and correctly so; it is the job of courts to punish and to remove liberty. The loss of liberty should act as the deterrent, not the conditions in prison itself.
Short-term prison sentences do protect the public; but as it says on the tin only for a short time. A short-sentence is often enough for someone to lose their home, their job or college place, for relationships and family bonds to break-down, to acquire a drug-habit and to have made links with serious offenders which may lead to further offending. So while a community may have short-term respite we are doing them a disservice because we are sending people back into their communities no less likely to offend and in many cases more likely to.
A short sentence allows none of the time to do the things that prison can do well that help reduce reoffending. Someone serving a short sentence may have time to detox, they may be able to engage with voluntary organisation, they can attend education and work, if spaces are available. However they are unlikely to take part in any accredited programmes, they will struggle to complete any qualifications or gain any vocational certificates in such a short space of time. They may be able to access emotional support and counselling but with waiting lists for many voluntary organisations it is doubtful that someone will have enough time to address the multiple and complex needs which lead to their offending behaviour.
Prison resources are finite and they are rightly directed towards long-term and serious offenders. Reducing the number of people in prison by directing minor offenders into meaningful community alternatives would allow resources to be directed at those who need the most help.
The recent riots in England have sparked debate (including here on LabourHame) about what we do with offenders. I can understand the call for tough sentences but it concerns me to think what will happen to teenagers caught up in the riots if they are sent to prison for years. What purpose will this truly serve? I think it will reinforce these young people’s belief that they are somehow separate from their community and wider society; it will further alienate and disenfranchise them. These young people already felt marginalised; a prison sentence will only further reduce their opportunity to be a responsible and productive member of society. I believe it would be more meaningful for many of the rioters to be diverted into community sentences combined with restorative justice. Have the rioters repair some of the damage they did in their communities; have them meet the people who became the victims of the riots and understand that it wasn’t the police or the Government they were attacking but rather people from their own community.
It will take a brave politician to say actually we’re not going to send many people to prison but if Labour want to develop policy based on evidence of what works then bravery is essential. It is our job to explain to voters the benefits of community alternatives and have them understand why ultimately such diversions from custody will in the long term reduce the crime in their communities. Remember ‘Tough on crime, Touch on the Causes of Crime’ – it is possible! Getting rid of short sentences isn’t about being soft on crime it’s about being realistic about what actually stops offending.
Emma Liddle is a Labour activist who lives and works in Edinburgh.