Lord Advocate defends sentencing proposals after `shocking way to treat victims` criticism
Scotland`s chief prosecutor has dismissed claims the country has a “soft touch” justice system after proposals to effectively abolish prison sentences of less than a year are attacked as allowing convicted killers to escape jail.
Scotland`s chief prosecutor has dismissed claims the country has a “soft touch” justice system after proposals to effectively abolish prison sentences of less than a year are attacked as allowing convicted killers to escape jail. Conservatives accused the Scottish government of a “shocking way to treat victims of crime” by creating the impression that reducing the use of sentences of less than 12 months would only impact on low-level offenders. Lord Advocate James Wolffe said such rhetoric repeated again as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon outlined new reforms to cut the prison numbers was a “mischaracterisation”. His intervention echoes SNP ministers, reportedly backed by most of the justice sector, in arguing that non-custodial services and support from appropriate bodies will help to reduce re-offending and crime in a nation with one of Europe`s highest incarceration rates. Mr Wolffe stressed that prosecutors and courts looked for decisions that were “appropriate and proportionate” before adding: “That is not the same thing as soft touch.” The Lord Advocate was speaking after delivering an annual lecture to APEX Scotland, a charity set up to help one-time offenders stay out of trouble. He did so as the Scottish Government unveiled plans to introduce a presumption against prison sentences of under a year, up from the current three months with judges who break this rule asked to justify their decision. Ms Sturgeon said: “For some people, a period in prison sometimes a lengthy period is the only appropriate sentence. “However, we also know that community sentences, where appropriate, are much more effective in reducing re-offending.” But the Conservative opposition at Holyrood cited official statistics showing that criminals convicted of homicide, serious assaults and sexual offences have all been given sentences of under 12 months in Scotland. Liam Kerr, the party`s Shadow Justice Secretary, said: “Thats a shocking way to treat victims of crime, and will do nothing to help rehabilitation. 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 former solicitor added that the SNP is creating a false impression that the change would only affect low-level offenders. Official figures show that Scottish courts handed out 11,165 prison sentences of up to a year in 2015/16, including two people who were convicted of homicide. A further 109 people found guilty of attempted murder or serious assault were also jailed for less than 12 months as well as 99 out of 325 people sent to prison for sex offences. The 2015/16 figures also showed that the proportion of convictions leading to a custodial sentence had fallen from 14 per cent to 13 per cent since 2007/2008. Community service orders, however, jumped from 12 per cent to 19 per cent as courts sought alternatives to both jail and fines. The figures also showed the number of people given very short sentences falling while those receiving between a year and two years leapt from 992 in 2007/2008 to 1,481 in 2015/16. Conservatives have also called various alternatives to prosecution, such as fines or police warnings, as a symptom of “soft touch Scotland”. Mr Wolffe defended such direct measures, a Tory-era 1995 innovation, as facing “the accused up with consequences of offending more swiftly than court proceedings”. Ever since Conservative reforms in the early 1980s, Scottish courts have also been able to decide that it is not in the public interest to prosecute some offenders and instead divert them to social work programmes, usually helping with underlying problems like drug or alcohol abuse. The number of `diversions` almost doubled between 2007/8 to 2014/15 with nearly half provided to un