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POA welcomes curb on short prison sentences

SCOTTISH judges will be ordered to stop routinely sentencing offenders to less than a year in jail, SNP Community Safety Minister Ash Denham announced today.

Ms Denham made an “affirmative order” to initiate the shift, which will require Scottish Parliament approval, noting that short-sentence convicts are reconvicted nearly twice as often as those handed community service.

She said the new advice was “not a ban” but an extension of the current “presumption” against sentences of less than three months.

“Clearly prison remains the right option for those who pose a serious risk to public safety and sentencing decisions will remain a matter for the independent judiciary,” she said. “However, we want to ensure courts consider the most appropriate sentence in all cases and imprison people only when there is no suitable alternative. 

“Disruptive and counterproductive short prison sentences often lead to homelessness, unemployment and family breakdown — making it harder for people to reintegrate on release and increasing the likelihood that they will be drawn into a cycle of offending.”

The move was welcomed by the Prison Officers’ Association, which is currently balloting for industrial action in Scotland over pay. But the union’s assistant general secretary for Scotland Andy Hogg said there was more work to be done.

“This is a positive step forward and hopefully will have a significant impact on reoffending  rates,” Mr Hogg said. “However, the Scottish government can’t lose sight of the fact that we are heading towards record numbers in prison at the moment and more needs to be done to address this issue and the pressure that overcrowded prisons place on staff.”

Ms Denham said the introduction of the three month curb in 2011 had “helped achieve a 19-year low in reconviction rates,” and argued that “evidence shows alternatives to custody are more successful in supporting rehabilitation and preventing reoffending.”

Scotland’s imprisonment rate is the highest in Western Europe, which the Scottish government says is the result of longer minimum terms for life prisoners, lengthier sentences for serious crimes and a rise in pre-trial remand.

Community Justice Scotland operations director Bill Fitzpatrick said: “Evidence shows this extension could reduce offending behaviour if strategic support is given to local service providers and communities to ensure that people pay back for the harm done and the underlying causes of crime are addressed.”

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