Sunday, 14 January 2007

Custodial sentences bill

Labour's Custodial Sentences Bill was debated in the Parliament last week.
Labour intends to send another 1,100 people to jail, despite the fact that our prisons are already holding record numbers and are bursting at the seems.
All progressive opinion thinks, like us that this Bill is a crock.

These are the notes from my contribution to the debate.

Custodial Sentences and Weapons Scotland Bill
The policy objectives of this Bill are laudable, I certainly want to see
‘a clearer, more understandable system for managing offenders while in custody and on licence in the community, taking account of public safety by managing risk and to have victims interests at its heart’
- the problem is these objectives are just not going to be fulfilled by this Bill.

That View is Widely Held
SCCCJ – ‘Regrets very much that the SE is choosing a path that, far from achieving its objectives would incur huge costs and would have serious negative consequences for the criminal justice system and the safety of Scottish Communities.’
SACRO – ‘The bill aims to make sentencing system clearer, but will not achieve that end and will lead to resources being absorbed when they could be spent more effectively elsewhere in the system.’
CJA’s – ‘We concur with the ambition of the Bill but are concerned that, as described, the Bills purpose will not be fulfilled and may serve to further undermine rather than promote public confidence and understanding.’
J2 Committee Report itself - ‘Committee supports the policy objectives of the Bill, but calls into question whether the measures in the Bill , as currently constituted, can achieve the stated objectives.’

*Impact on the prison population
Things started to go wrong for me with this Bill when despite Ministers and officials saying ‘Nothing in the Bill requires judges to change their sentencing practice’, virtually every witness we heard from suggested they will.
And when SPS’s Rachael Gwynon told us ‘these measures will increase the daily prison population by 700-1,100.’ the alarm bells started ringing everywhere.
A prison population already at record levels and chronically overcrowded to be increased by 20%? HMIP has highlighted again and again his growing apprehension about a return to the 1980’s disruption and riots in our prisons.

Despite the view across the board that short term sentences in custody are wholly ineffective and a hugely expensive failure as far as reducing re-offending is concerned, here we have a Bill determined to take us further up that dead end.
CJA’s - ‘ The Bill would overwhelm the SPS , local authorities and independent providers. It has ineffectiveness built into it.’

Greater Clarity in Sentencing.
‘Transparent sentencing regime will improve public confidence in the CJ system’ says the policy memorandum to the Bill – indeed, but, again, this Bill does not provide it.

Andrew Coyle, Professor of Prison Studies at Kings College London in his evidence said quote [ p180 of evidence]
‘The aim of the Bill ‘to achieve greater clarity in sentencing is admirable. However it is not immediately apparent that the Bill will achieve its aim. Even when approaching it in a positive manner one needs a calculator and a great deal of patience to unravel the arithmetic of what a prison sentence will mean in the future.’
If Professor Andrew Coyle, with his credentials in Criminal Justice cannot fathom out the sentence, what hope is there for the rest of us?

And what ever can he mean? [see Sheriffs Association evidence],
‘The Sheriffs Association does not consider that the Bill will achieve the objective of delivering clarity and transparency in sentencing. Although the custody part of the sentence will be announced at the public sentencing hearing, it will not be possible to predict or state what period will actually be spent in prison or what conditions of licence during the community part of the sentence will be.’
And they even go on, in an unusually humorous vein for them, to ridicule the Bills proposals with an example of an offender found guilty of assault to severe disfigurement - See p 219 of evidence [read it out]

Further aspect of the Bill also open to public ridicule - the ‘anomaly’ that those sentenced to 30 days will spend less time in jail than those sentenced to 15, will have tabloid editors begging for more!
Because those on 15 days or less must serve 100% behind bars whereas sentences over 15 days spend 50% in jail. [no rationale why 15days]

50% to 75% of sentence now served in Custody
Either the Bill will make no difference whatsoever and offenders will continue by and large to serve 50% of their sentence in custody, or worse, despite the aim being to reduce re-offending, people will spend longer behind bars increasing that part of their sentence which does not work and spend less in the community which does and is, we are told, the whole emphasis of the Bill.

End to automatic unconditional early release of prisoners
Ministers–driven by public's understandable confusion about how six months means three months and a year equals 6 months, and their irritation at people who commit more crimes while out on licence.
But the truth is, that will continue with this bill
First, 50% [or 75%]of sentence still served in custody and 50% [or 25%] now as ‘community sentence’.
Secondly, prisoners still likely to be committing crimes when out on licence; especially since ‘supervision’ of short sentences [category where re-offending rates at its highest] based on no more than a promise of ‘good behaviour’!

I Welcome ‘Community based’ sentences
Because we know it has a far better chance of success than custody. Context ; for first time on record their were more community disposals in Scotland last year than custodial disposals

Paradox is that all the experts welcome community sentences but judges, eager to feed the public's apparent appetite for longer sentences will on previous experience in all likelihood cut back on that part of sentence which does any good. - BONKERS
Overwhelming evidence suggests we should scrap short sentences in custody. They don’t work and costly failures.
ADSW/COSLA p292 evidence
‘When people who have been in jail for a few weeks or months come out , they just want to forget it all –block it out. Therefore programmes delivered in the community have far more meaning to people.’
Its about time Executive showed the political courage to face down ignorance and hysteria.

Unrealistic Expectations Given to Public
Much of the evidence we received at Committee felt Bill was in danger of reducing public confidence and protection by putting resources in all the wrong places.
Risk Management resources - SPS currently risk assesses 3,000 prisoners /year; Bill proposed that is increased to 12,000
CJSW supervises 600 offenders per year; Bill suggest 3,800
-Supervision resources needed
Either no real supervision at all –be of good behaviour - obvious risk- or we direct thin resources to all the wrong targets.
Resources should be centred on high risk
-Support resources needed
Need a holistic approach – housing, relationships, alcohol, drugs, benefits, stability of community setting vs break up of all those factors by taking out of community and into custody!
See evidence from Professor Roger Houchin [p192]
‘The most profound shortcomings in the Bill concern the very limited consideration it gives to the community part of the sentence. It places all the obligations on the offender but makes only the scantest reference to the duties of authorities to enable the offender access to opportunities support in services of housing, employment, education and training, counselling , health care and financial management commensurate with aiding their full rehabilitation.’

Cost And Efficacy
Costs implications huge and criticism that spent in wrong areas.
SPS – 2 new prisons for 1,100 more daily population - £200m
SPS- more prison staff pro rata -£6m - writing risk assessment reports for people who should not be serving custody sentences.
CJSW – 10% more qualified social workers , which if you can even get them - £7.25m - but applied less than effectively.
Training for the existing staff in new reporting etc £11m

Unusual in my experience that a Stage One report has so many criticisms and questions still to be answered by the SE.
In my view much of this Bill unravelled during the evidence taking session….SCCCJ, CJA, Risk Assessment, Voluntary Sector, SPS, Sheriffs.

I am convinced that Bill would result in judges increasing the sentences to be served in custody; more people going to jail for longer – precisely the opposite advice we were repeatedly given as to what works.

For these reasons SSP will not support the Bill.

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