SNP's soft-touch sentencing is no justice for the victims

THE SNP GOVERNMENT has confirmed it will introduce an order, which will effectively ban judges from handing out prison sentences of less than a year.

This is an alarming policy, particularly at a time when crime is rising, most notably violent and sexual crime. It should therefore be of no surprise that the Scottish Conservatives strongly oppose this plan in its current form and will do everything we can to highlight its danger to Parliament and encourage a rethink.

The basic principle is that, instead of being put in jail, convicted criminals who would have been sentenced to up to a year in prison, will be punished via a community sentence instead. At a general level, this would comprise of a community payback order by which criminals will serve their debt to society in their own homes, but be obliged to undertake meaningful activity, organised by the local council.

To many, that will not seem like a punishment fit for committing a, sometimes extremely serious, crime. The latest statistics tell us that 9,500 criminals were sentenced to less than 12 months in jail last year; so, those 9,500 would now be allowed to remain at large, in the community.

Out of that 9,500, 100 were convicted of attempted murder or serious assault, 98 were sexual offenders and 329 were convicted of handling offensive weapons.

The idea that these criminals are somehow ‘harmless’ and really just took a wrong turn in life is patronising in the extreme.

Worse, for the 9,500 victims, this seems like very poor justice indeed.

To be clear, the SNP’s plan against sentences of less than a year will let dangerous criminals off the hook. It will compound the soft-touch approach, which is already making life miserable for victims of crime across Scotland. What this clearly shows is that, under the SNP, the pendulum has swung too far in favour of criminals in Scotland and away from those whose lives they have made a misery.

Removing this option from judges will also mean that criminals convicted of attempted murder, and sexual offences will be allowed back into the community. This is why the system is staggered in the way that it is, so that those convicted of more serious crimes are subject to more serious punishments. And yet, the SNP is choosing to remove a crucial level and instead send a sizeable cohort of criminals back into the community. It is no wonder that victims are outraged that they will be denied justice and they are scared they may be victimised all over again.

The simple fact is that Scotland’s justice system cannot perform the key functions of keeping the public safe, punishing, and deterring crimes under these shambolic plans.

But that’s not all – and this is a crucial point – it simply cannot be right that the SNP are telling judges not to send people to the jail and instead put them onto community payback orders, when the alternatives to jail are not delivering the outcomes.

The latest statistics regarding community payback orders make pretty grim reading.

According to official government statistics, almost a third of community punishments were not completed last year. That means that a third of offenders legally obliged to undertake community sentences, did not finish them.

Tellingly, this rate has remained virtually unchanged for the last three years, showing that the SNP has been unable, or unwilling, to improve it – surely a precondition if you are going to load the system with up to 9,500 more criminals.

The statistics also show that while the number of drug treatment and testing orders (one of the forms of community sentence) handed down to offenders by the courts rose, the completion rate (the number of people given such an order who actually got to the end of the period having achieved staying off drugs) fell to 40 per cent, the lowest level in the last seven years.

The most concerning statistic, however, is that one-in-four Community Payback Orders did not involve any unpaid work or activity – the highest on record; meaning that even of the Community Payback Orders that were completed, the offenders did not actually do anything that helped their community or taught them new or transferable skills.

So, yes, as currently configured, it seems prison sentences of under 12 months are not delivering the level of rehabilitation that we would all like to see but it is clear that the present alternative systems, into which the SNP wish to drop 9,500 extra criminals, are not either. Which begs the question why the SNP government is not seriously looking at what is going on in prisons that apparently are not delivering rehabilitation, instead of a knee-jerk reaction to putting people back onto the streets.

And furthermore, rather than compelling judges to hand down alternatives to prison, address the reasons that judges do not have the confidence in the alternatives to deliver the punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation that theyclearly feel the prison system can.

If the SNP seriously intends to stop criminals going to jail, then, at the very least, it has to demonstrate that CPOs will provide the same level of punishment, rehabilitation and deterrence for criminals, and the same sense of justice for victims. Because, what this shows, once again, is a consistent misunderstanding of the needs and experience of victims.

To let domestic abusers and violent attackers out of jail and into the community shows an utter disregard for the suffering of victims. Particularly when it seems those abusers and attackers will not even have to complete their community payback order.

It is obvious that the SNP is offloading criminals out of prison and into a system that is already struggling to cope with the number of offenders it has. The SNP is going to stop convicted criminals serving sentences of less than a year. That is soft-touch justice.