Douglas J. Cusine: Sentencing – the long and the short of it

Douglas J. Cusine: Sentencing – the long and the short of it

Reports suggest that First Minister Humza Yousaf wants to change the law so that the only short prison sentences imposed will be on violent or sexual offenders, writes Douglas J. Cusine.

Were the first minister actually visit a sheriff court (perhaps even more than once), he might realise the utter folly of this idea. In the past, ministers like Kenny Macaskill have said: “Short prison sentences do not work.” That has as much persuasiveness as my saying: “Short prison sentences do work.” The statement was then altered to say: “Short sentences do not rehabilitate.” I would not disagree with that, but, in many instances, the reason for imposing a short prison sentence is to give the public a rest (however short that might be). Why? Because in many cases, every other disposal will have been tried, perhaps on numerous occasions and so the sheriff can do little else.

Before imposing a custodial sentence, in some cases, it is useful to get a background report from a social worker; sometimes, it is mandatory. I served for only 11 years as a sheriff, and so there are others with far more experience that I had. However, it was not uncommon to read in such a report that the offender came from what was called “a broken home”, which might mean that the offender had been put out, or that the mother had been abandoned with several children and found life, understandably, a challenge. It followed, frequently that the offender had left school with no qualifications, some being barely able to read. Many reports would disclose that the offender had a drug and/or alcohol problem, having started on drugs or alcohol from an early age, sometimes as young as 12 and moving on from cannabis to heroin and/or cocaine. In some cases, the offender had mental health issues linked to the use of cannabis.

I had a high regard for those in the criminal justice social work departments in the courts with which I was most familiar – Aberdeen, Banff, and Peterhead. That said, it has to be accepted that there is no one person who can deal with an offender who has the issues I have identified – and these offenders are seen often. Short prison sentences will not do anything to address these.

The first minister wants to have tougher community orders. That sounds good. When I started, there were Community Services Orders, which were a direct alternative to a custodial sentence. They required unpaid work in the community. It was made clear to the offender that if the CSO was not completed, a custodial sentence would be imposed. I think the public would expect some sanction to be imposed for a failure to comply with a court order.

These CSOs are now Community Payback Orders – a change of name does not, of itself, make a meaningful change. Things may be different now, but the unpaid work in the community used to consist, in the main, of working in a charity shop, or stocking shelves in a supermarket. Again, things make have changed, but, in my time, an offender could not do unpaid work, if the unpaid work was work which should be done by the local authority. For example, the school railings might have been in need of a coat of paint, but even if the local authority accepted that this was not going to be done in the foreseeable future, the offender could not do it. My only “triumph” was to get offenders to remove the litter from a municipal golf course.

There is another problem which is that there are, or least were, too few social workers to supervise the offenders who, with luck, might see the social worker once per month and be left for the remainder of the month to “get on with it”. If the offender continued to associate with those who were also involved, say in alcohol or drug use, it would take a fairly strong-mined person to resits temptation.

It is often forgotten that offenders with the issues i have identified make demands on the NHS and, in some instances seem to get priority over others. For example those on Drug Testing and Treatment Orders may get priority over a non-offender who is attempting to address a drug addiction.

Any solution needs resources and there is little point in mouthing fine words and imposing yet more responsibility on social workers without an increase, and it may have to be a vast increase, in resources and persons other than social workers need to be involved, for example, in teaching someone to read, weaning the person off drugs/alcohol and treating any mental health issues.

Even then, what is a sheriff to do, if the offender does not carry out whatever has been required? That is not for me to answer. The public need to feel safe. Over to you, first minister.

Douglas J. Cusine is a retired sheriff and a respected author of articles and books on legal and medico-legal topics.

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