Douglas J. Cusine: The reality of community-based disposals
The Scottish Sentencing Council has recently produced a report advocating shorter prison sentences even for some serious offences. There would be more emphasis on community-based disposals, such as community payback orders which used to be called community service orders. The report suggest the possibility of combining prison service with a community-based disposal. There cannot be any objection in principle to such a proposal, but the “proof of the pudding…” as they say.
At present, those on community payback orders are supervised by social workers, employed by the local authority. In my time in Aberdeen, there was a shortage of social workers and while I had the highest regard for them, they were hard-pressed and it was not uncommon for an offender to be given the initial “induction” interview and not a lot else. Furthermore, the offender would, at best, see the social worker once per month and would be left to get on with life for the rest of the time, and it was hard for many to avoid getting into the company of those who may have played a part in the offender’s previous lifestyle.
There is, however, another serious matter and one which cannot be addressed by a social worker, no matter how skilled or experienced. It is not, or at least was not uncommon to have a report from a social worker which disclosed some or all of the following. The offender did not do well at school, had been removed from the “family” home, the “family being often a one-parent family, usually the mother. Often, their non-achievement at school meant that they were, for many, unemployable, or were unreliable when employed. The offender had been involved in taking alcohol and/or illegal drugs from an early age – 12 was not uncommon. Some of those who had been taking such drugs had low-level mental health issues, often associated with cannabis. It is obvious that an offender with all, or some of these issues needs to be cared for by someone other than a social worker and more often, at least initially, than once per month. People with some or all of these issues often have a lifestyle with none of the normal parameters. They “sleep in” and this do not attend court, or the pharmacy for their methadone.
If there is to be more emphasis on community-based disposals, it does not take a genius to suggest that the appropriate persons have to be involved and that in turns means much more funding. There others things which cannot be ignored. One is that some offenders, e.g. those with problems related to drugs put constant demands on the NHS, which is seriously under pressure and has been for some time. Another point is that the real point of short prison sentences is not to rehabilitate the offender, but simply to give the public a rest for however short a period that might.
Some politicians seem to think that sheriffs are too ready to impose such sentences. Rather the reality is that it is likely that every community-based disposal will have been tried –perhaps many times – before a custodial sentence is imposed (if politicians actually attended courts, they would know). The last point is that the public must have faith in the system and feel that a community-based disposal gives them the confidence that they would have if the offender was in prison. That was not the case and it may still not be the case.
Douglas J. Cusine is a retired sheriff and a respected author of articles and books on legal and medico-legal topics.