Page last updated at 15:04 GMT, Monday, 24 November 2008

Jail service 'should be split up'

By Reevel Alderson
BBC Scotland Home Affairs Correspondent

Jail bars
There are currently 8,000 prisoners in Scotland's jails

A former jail governor has called for the prison service to be split up, with local councils taking responsibility for inmates serving short sentences.

The suggestion was made by Professor Alec Spencer, formerly in charge of Peterhead and Edinburgh prisons, on BBC Radio Scotland's The Investigation.

He argued splitting up the Scottish Prison Service would help tackle record overcrowding and reoffending.

There are currently more than 8,000 prisoners behind bars in Scotland.

The Scottish Government Statistics Division last week predicted this figure could rise to 9,600 within 10 years.

We could start merging and using those resources for the benefit of the community, rather than just keep them in prison as a whole
Prof Alec Spencer
Former prison governor

Prof Spencer, who is now an academic at Stirling University, believes a national prisons service should continue to look after dangerous and long-term prisoners, which he said would number about 3,000.

The remaining 5,000 inmates, including many on remand who never receive a custodial term from the courts, could become the responsibility of Scotland's Community Justice Authorities (CJA), established in 2007.

These bring together local authorities, the police, the prison service and other key agencies. Prof Spencer said they would use resources more effectively, and could help reduce reoffending rates.

Speaking on The Investigation, he gave the example of Edinburgh and the Lothians. The CJA budget is 11m with the cost of running the prison in the capital at 20m.

A call has been made by a former governor to split up the Scottish Prison Service

He said: "That would mean for the area as a whole there could be an increase to 30m worth of resources, and my suggestion is that gradually - if the Community Justice Authority can use those resources - staff could work in the community, on work programmes and supervise offenders in the community. That would be much cheaper."

He went on: "Offenders could come in, say for the morning or evening, into prison, and undertake a programme, so we could start merging and using those resources for the benefit of the community, rather than just keep them in prison as a whole."

About 80% of those jailed in Scotland receive sentences of six months or less, and of those released from jail, 62% reoffend within two years.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said that, although the Scottish Government is committed to strengthening community sentences, it is building new jails.

Addiewell in West Lothian opens next month, while plans are in hand for new jails at Peterhead, in Aberdeenshire, and Bishopbriggs, in East Dunbartonshire.

The Scottish Conservatives' justice spokesman Bill Aitken said community sentences were an example of "soft touch Scotland".

He said imprisonment, even for a few weeks or months, gave hard-pressed communities a break whilst the offender was inside.

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