Page last updated at 09:29 GMT, Thursday, 12 November 2009

MSPs reject short jail terms ban

Ministers have argued that short prison sentences are not working

Plans to scrap short-term prison sentences in Scotland have been rejected by a committee of MSPs.

The proposals in the Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill would have scrapped jail terms of six months or less, in favour of community service.

Opposition MSPs had described the move as a "soft touch" and the justice committee narrowly voted to reject it.

But they backed the general principles of the bill, meaning it can now proceed through the Scottish Parliament.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said three-quarters of those given a prison sentence of six months or less reoffended within two years.

He said short sentences did not work and it was better to punish in the community, rather than send people to jail for a few months.

74% of those released from short term prison sentences go on to offend again within two years
Robert Brown
Lib Dems

The proposal to impose a presumption against prison sentences of six months or less divided Holyrood's justice committee.

It came down to the casting vote of the committee's convener, Tory MSP Bill Aitken.

He decided the public would rather see offenders go to prison.

A proposal for a "community payback order" to replace disposals like community service and probation orders was backed by the committee.

Mr Aitken said: "If the new community payback orders are adequately resourced, they should simplify and strengthen the current range of community disposals."

'Complete rethink'

Despite the committee's conclusion's, Mr MacAskill believes more and more people are agreeing with the Scottish government's position on short sentencing.

"They do nothing to stop offending behaviour, and the report itself acknowledges that short sentences have limited effect as a deterrent," he said.

"It is clear that more and more people are agreeing with the Scottish government's position and we will continue to work to build on that growing consensus as the bill progresses through the parliamentary process."

Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Robert Brown said: "It's disappointing that Labour and the Tories are not prepared to recognise the total failure of short term prison sentences in helping to reduce crime in Scotland.

"74% of those released from short term prison sentences go on to offend again within two years, compared to around 40% for those on community sentences.

"It is quite inexplicable with those figures that the Labour and Conservative parties should want to impose a burden of around £40,000 a year per prisoner on the taxpayer for a sentence that many people believe is often just a college for criminals."

Organised crime

Labour justice spokesman Richard Baker said: "The SNP need to completely rethink their approach. This is another disaster of Mr MacAskill's making.

"If Mr MacAskill does not change his mind after this report then Labour will fight these proposals."

There are several other proposals in the bill and the justice committee said it had given qualified support to the general principles, and highlighted areas of disagreement.

The bill suggested targeting those who directed organised crime, with sentences of up to 14 years.

Other measures included closing the loophole that allows spouses to avoid giving evidence against their partner, and raising the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12.

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