Lawyer attributes varied application of law to end short sentences to regional differences

Following the news that criminals are continuing to be jailed for mere weeks despite the introduction of legislation that was intended to end prison sentences of less than three months, a solicitor advocate has attributed this to regional differences in how offenders are handled.

As The Herald reported on Monday, about one third of sentences handed out by courts are for a period of weeks, despite the then justice minister Kenny MacAskill introducing legislation in 2010 meant to bring an end to the “free bed-and-board culture” in prisons with a presumption against brief sentences, which, experts say, actually increase the probability of reoffending.

Ross Yuill, president of the Glasgow Bar Association (pictured), said he thought judges were taking the presumption into account in Glasgow but that in rural jurisdictions offenders are more likely to be given shorter shrift.

He said: “I’m surprised the figure is still so high.

“My experience on the ground is that they are imposed a lot less frequently than they were.

“We get a lot of domestic abuse cases, in which people will repeatedly breach bail conditions not to contact their wife or husband.

“Sometimes judges will give them a short blast of jail. But I don’t think the people getting them are necessarily ones that would otherwise be rehabilitated.

“There are habitual shoplifters, who come in and out like a yo-yo, and judges will lose patience with people who aren’t playing the game in terms of engaging with orders. For the majority, that’s probably the reason for these sentences.

“A 16-year-old boy coming to court for the first time is going to get help with his issues. But if he’s been given four or five chances… I don’t think it’s an issue with a lack of trust in community sentences.”

Mr Yuill supported the introduction of level one community payback orders – these permit a sheriff to impose as many as 100 hours of unpaid work on an offender without a requirement to obtain background reports.

He said these are now in regular use and added: “I think there must be an issue with regional differences. I spend most days in court and I don’t see many short sentences, whereas it was common 10 or 15 years ago.

“I would support judicial discretion, but also the principle that short-term sentences don’t address the underlying causes of crime.”

A report on the legislation, which was opposed by the Conservatives and Labour but was backed by the Greens and Liberal Democrats.

The Scottish government has said it agrees that short sentences “don’t work” but also that judges have the right to jail people based on the evidence before them.