SNP plans to effectively end prison sentences of less than a year are proving controversial, with the Tories saying the move will mean convicted killers escaping jail terms.

Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge to “extend the presumption against short term sentences from three months to 12 months” in her Programme for Government yesterday, was welcomed by campaigners, many in the legal profession, and other political parties.

The Tories, however, were highly critical.

Loading article content

Their justice spokesman Liam Kerr hit out at the move, saying figures showed that in 2015-16 two people convicted of homicide received a sentence of up to a year, as did 27 people convicted of sexual assault.

Kerr said: “The SNP is creating an impression that this change will only really impact low-level offenders whose rehabilitation would be better served with alternative punishments.

“The reality is it will see certain offenders convicted of homicide, serious assault, attempted murder and sexual assault escape a jail term.”

Courts handed out 11,165 prison sentences of up to a year in 2015-16, data from the Scottish Government showed, including for 82 people convicted of robbery, 109 who were guilty of attempted murder or serious assault, and 99 people who had committed sexual offences.

In addition 109 motorists convicted of careless or dangerous driving received a jail term of this length, along with 285 housebreakers and 334 people caught with an offensive weapon.

Kerr claimed sending fewer offenders to jail was “a shocking way to treat victims of crime”, adding that it would “do nothing to help rehabilitation”.

He said: “Prison is meant to do four things — punish, deter, keep the public safe, and rehabilitate.

“With these proposed changes, the Scottish Government is utterly neglecting all but one of these.

“If ministers are serious about rehabilitation, they should ensure prisoners are compelled to work or undertake education while inside, instead of trying to empty prisons.”

The Liberal Democrats backed the Scottish Government, insisting that extending the presumption against jail sentences to 12 months was a “step in the right direction” and “in line with international best practice for reducing crime”.

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur said: “Around 60 per cent of people given the shortest prison sentences re-offend with a year of release.

“Each re-offence is a crime, with a victim, that could have been prevented. By contrast, each successful rehabilitation results in a positive contribution towards our communities.

“It is time to end our Victorian attitude to justice. It may sound tough but it doesn’t work. Of course those committing serious offences or who pose a danger to society should be imprisoned. But we need to give others the chance to get back on track. Instead of being given destructive short stints in prison, people should be compelled to give something back

“Liberal Democrats will support these reforms, provided the government stays true to what it set out yesterday and ensures that robust community sentence measures are properly funded.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said the Tory claims were wrong: “We have set out a presumption not a ban as sentencers retain the discretion to pass the most appropriate sentence based on the specific circumstances of each case.

“We are clear that prison remains the right place for the most serious and dangerous offenders.

“Evidence shows that short-term imprisonment is not effective and can often increase long-term offending; individuals released from a custodial sentence of 12 months or less are reconvicted nearly twice as often as those who are given a community payback order.

“Ministers stand by their record on less crime and lower reoffending while our plans to build on this progress with further reforms have already been warmly welcomed by a wide range of criminal justice experts and former justice ministers.”

In information obtained by thinktank, Reform Scotland, through Freedom of Information legislation, the Scottish Prison Service say there are limited opportunities for rehabilitation for prisoners serving short sentence, and most of the rehabilitation programmes are only suitable for prisoners inside for longer than six months.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness, the former Deputy First Minister, and a former Advocate General, commended the Scottish government’s plans.

The Liberal Democrat peer said: “This is a welcome and imaginative extension of the presumption against short sentences.

“Of course public safety is paramount, but a range of community-based sentences appear more likely to reduce re-offending than short terms of imprisonment, where effective rehabilitation programmes can be difficult to implement.”

Former First Minister Henry McLeish, who led a commission on the future of prisons in 2008, said prison was appropriate for “serious offenders” but that 60 per cent of those imprisoned for three months or less were re-convicted within one year.

He said: “Short sentences do nothing to stop reoffending in our communities and only result in offenders going in and out of prison time and time again and reoffending upon release.

“In extending the existing presumption period could be of significant help to the prison service, provide more effective and appropriate help for those who are not a threat to society and with further investment in community alternatives, help cut reoffending.”

A spokesman for the Howard League for Penal Reform added: “Sentencers, victims and the wider public need to have confidence that there are credible, properly resourced community-based disposals for those who might otherwise receive a short custodial sentences.”

Earlier this year, a coalition of penal reform charities, councils, social workers, prison inspectors called for a more liberal approach to custodial sentences.