Reform Scotland, an independent think tank, yesterday launched a new report called Power to Protect, which explores recommendations for reforming Scotland's justice system in order to make it function more efficiently and successfully. The report is available at http://www.reformscotland.com/index.php/publication/view_details/198/ and I highly recommend it for a read.
It makes some interesting proposals which are argued would improve the workings of the Scottish Justice system, most notably by scrapping sentences under 3 months and by making Procurator Fiscals directly electable by the public, both of which have provoked a response from the media and political commentators.
I personally think that there is much to the report which is to be welcomed and seriously considered. The criminal justice system in Scotland is creaking under the weight of imprisonments, with the prison estate incredibly overcrowded - currently there is an average daily prison population of 7,376 despite the fact that the design capacity of the prison estate is only 6,400 (Power to Protect, p.18). It is obvious that changes need to be made - we cannot fit any more prisoners into the system and new planned prisons in Addiewell and Bishopbriggs will only try and bring it towards parity rather than solving the problem. Kenny MacAskill, the SNP Justice Minister, has already had to concede that prisoners may have to be released early if anything caused a reduction in the prison capacity, a situtation which is a potential disaster in the making, and which strongly undermines public confidence in the justice system.
Part of the problem with the system is that we don't seem to know what purpose our prisons serve. Are they institutions of punishment, rehabilitation or protection for society? Currently it can be argued that their purpose is very muddled - mostly punishment with some unconvincing protection thrown in. Rehabilitation goes out the window when it comes to overcrowded prisons, and is further compounded by short term prison sentences which leave no time for working with prisoners - instead, the time is only useful as a means for encouraging said prisoners to become further entrenched in criminal lifestyles. The main support structures which help to avoid reoffending are family, housing and employment, with rehabilitation training thrown in for good measure. A short term sentence helps to ensure the loss or alienation of the main three supports, with no training made available in the prison - the sentence becomes wasted time and wasted skills.
Scrapping short term sentences under three months would therefore make sense for both cutting the number of unnecessary prisoners and hopefully helping to contribute to avoiding reoffending. I think that this needs to also be coupled with scrapping imprisonment, as much as possible, for fine defaulters and the like - ending up in jail costs the tax payer a huge amount of money for very little return, and as stated above, makes it more likely that the offender will be drawn into other criminal behaviour. If instead the offenders had to undertake punishments which were of value to society (not watered down community service which has no meaning but rather quantifiable work which directly benefits the community who were affected by the criminal behaviour) then they would have an opportunity to sustain their support structures whilst properly repaying their 'debt' to society.
The issue of the election of Procurator Fiscals is a more contentious one, which Richard Baker from the Labour Party has condemned. He is understandably concerned about the politicisation of the service, but I think that if the system was protected from partisanship then the introduction of elections could raise the public accountability of the service. Elections would hopefully force the candidates to explain their ideas for the area in a manner which the public could understand - this isn't a dumbing down but rather an opening up of the process to the wider community. It is certainly a policy which requires consideration and an examination of the implications for the criminal justice system - the US can presumably provide case studies of the system in action.
The final aspect of the report which I want to comment on is in relation to early release. Currently prisoners on shorter term sentences (less than four years) are automatically released after serving half of their term. This is a ridiculous situation - it is not related to good behaviour or participation in educational schemes (as is the case for longer sentence prisoners) and therefore provides absolutely no motivation to prisoners to behave or engage with rehabilitation. If a crime deserves a sentence of four years, then prisoners should serve four years - anything else critically underpins any public confidence in the system and makes a mockery of society's judgement on criminal or undesirable behaviour. At the very least, early release should be directly related to behaviour in the prison and should only be accessible for certain low or no risk crimes - the time off should also still be connected into a period of legitimate community service to ensure that the person is still contributing to society for their crime. So for example, if a prisoner serving a five year sentence for a no risk crime has behaved well in prison and engaged fully with the rehabilitation services, then it may be appropriate for them to be released from prison slightly earlier. However this time would include service to the community rather than just immediate freedom, perhaps utilising new skills developed in prison which benefit society and allow the prisoner to further develop his or her abilities and experience.
Furthermore, we need to ensure that sentences are appropriate to the crime committed and the inherent risks of reoffending. I believe that crimes which are rooted in psychological conditions which are at present 'untreatable' in the sense of eliminating the offender's risk to society (i.e. sexual crimes against children, predatory sexual crimes against adults etc) must lead to the offender being removed from society in order to protect it. Short term sentences which then rely upon the ability of an overworked police force to monitor the offenders place communities in danger and are a disgrace. I am not necessarily suggesting that such crimes should involve imprisonment without release (I can hear the strangled gasps of disgust from liberals everywhere) although the idea is not without its attraction. However, there must be measures put in place which allow the correct screening of offenders and assessment of the level of threat they pose, with a recognition that if there is a legitimate threat then we must respond to it appropriately.
So, as I've said there is a lot in the report which requires attention and serious consideration (I should clarify that the last part of my post about locking up sexual offenders is my own thoughts) and I recommend a read of it. I know that some will dismiss the report as being of the right - the organisation does explore the Broken Windows theory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_windows_theory) in other publications, which is a criminology concept which I support, but which is rooted in the right realism school of thought. However, I think that it is important that we take the opportunity to bring together as many different approaches and thoughts on the criminal justice system as possible so that we can meet this critical problem in the best way possible. Reassessment of how the system works is a crucial job and one that we need to undertake now, before we hit a crisis which forces responses upon us.