IN these times of spiralling chaos over Brexit, rising global instability and intensifying debate over Scotland’s future, some of the vital issues that have a profound effect on people’s daily lives are easily marginalised.

Issues such as crime and punishment, a subject that’s always been close to the heart of the political right – especially the punishment part. Many an ambitious Tory has risen from faceless obscurity to public prominence by loudly and relentlessly demanding longer and tougher penalties for offenders.

And because everyone naturally sympathises with the victims of crime, it takes a brave politician to express dissent – even those of us who have no voters to worry about don’t tend to relish those awkward conversations with taxi drivers who insist that we “take off the kid gloves” and start to “throw away the keys” or even “bring back hanging”.

Yet people who have to deal face-to-face with offenders on a daily basis understand that populist soundbites are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. We need a more sophisticated approach to tackling crime, and it starts from an understanding that those who commit crimes are highly likely to have been on the receiving end of all sorts of violence and abuse throughout their lives.

And when it comes to the women who populate our jails, that is almost an iron law. The statistics are consistent. Most have suffered serious trauma. Many are barely hanging on to life on this planet.

In an overwhelming number of cases, their suffering has driven them to alcohol abuse, drug addiction and self-harm. The vast majority don’t need punishment – they need care and support.

The recent announcement by the Scottish Government that prison sentences of less than 12 months will be ended marks a step forward towards a more enlightened society. With more than 90% of the female prison population serving sentences of less than that, the number of women in our jails should be reduced from about 1000 a year to something nearer 100 in one fell swoop.

Our Justice Secretary should be congratulated for his courage, especially in contrast to his English counterpart who timidly followed Scotland’s lead – but then stopped at a six-month limit.

As Karyn McCluskey, the head of Community Justice Scotland and former director of the Violence Reduction Unit, pointed out last week, locking women up for shoplifting and crimes of dishonesty doesn’t break the cycle of crime. McCluskey said: “My plea to the public is to understand how complex the women I come across are. They are some of the most damaged people. They have had a lifetime of trauma. You have to jail those you are afraid of and not those you are mad at.”

She is right. I would add that too many women are being remanded in jail, often for crimes that would never lead to a custodial sentence. Many are remanded because they fail to appear at court.

That’s not because they’re irresponsible or that they have “refused to engage”. It’s because they are so traumatised that their lives have become tangled up in chaos. They don’t open correspondence because they can’t face reading, or cannot read, the contents. They forget court dates, or simply cannot face attending a hearing. Instead they go into denial – and end up in jail.

I have to say many male offenders suffer a similar complex combination of problems. Young guys are written off as no-hopers long before they leave school, then can’t quite fit with 21st-century expectations of life. With no other means of achieving status or possessions, they are easy prey when it comes to being recruited to sell drugs.

And when they’re caught, there are plenty more where they came from. Putting them in jail just persuades them even more that being a hard man in a Lord of the Flies parallel society is the only way to survive.

Now, I know it’s not easy living in a community at the sharp end of drink and drug-fuelled crime. Heartbroken mothers who have watched their sons and daughters succumb to the short-term escapism offered by the local dream sellers will find it difficult to have even a sliver of sympathy with those who have sold their children drugs.

I understand why they view drug dealers like the evil child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. But it’s more complex than that.

It’s true that some people experience the same hurdles in life and manage to stay out of trouble. But a lot of that comes down to luck. If your life has been a succession of traumatic experiences, bouncing from one catastrophe to the next without time to draw breath; when the only people you ever cared about have dropped dead; when you’ve been separated from your loved ones from a young age; when you’ve been churned up by a loveless care system; and when – especially when – you’ve notched up a conviction and become an official criminal in society’s eyes, it can feel almost impossible to retrace your steps and make a fresh start.

Miraculously, some do – but only with the help of a more humane, patient and empathetic system of justice. All the evidence shows that re-offending is reduced using more community-based disposals. As Karyn McCluskey argued, the money saved by reducing the prison population should be used to expand support services such as community payback orders, restriction of liberty orders, drug treatment interventions and bail supervision.

And let’s be clear, there will be money available. The Scottish Prison Service gets three times the budget of criminal justice social work and four times the budget of Legal Aid. Yet many prisoners, especially those on short-term sentences, can be locked up for 23 hours a day with no access to any meaningful support, let alone serious rehabilitation programmes.

It costs 18 times more to lock someone up than to get them on to a community payback order. So, we will save money – tens of millions of pounds – by slashing the prison population. And if we allocated that money to providing housing, support, and hope, we would turn lives and communities around.

And in the long run we would all benefit.

So, let’s ignore the frenzy of the tabloids and the sniping of the Tories and start to give our more progressive politicians a helping hand. Yes, we need to debate the big issues from Brexit to Scottish independence. But let us also start to pave the way for a progressive socially just Scotland where we can leave behind forever the reactionary influences of the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage, Piers Morgan and set a shining example to our friends in the south.