Scottish government to consult on ending shorter sentences

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson MSP
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson MSP

The Scottish government is set to open a formal consultation on plans to extend an existing presumption against jail sentences of less than three months.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson is planning to increase the use of community-based sentences in Scotland as a more effective alternative to very short-term jail sentences, although he failed to indicate which sentences he felt were too short.

The move has been tacitly backed by Scottish Green co-convener Patrick Harvie, who told The Herald: “Anyone who’s really dangerous enough to require imprisonment is unlikely to have their offending behaviour successfully challenged in the very short time that rehabilitation services will have to work with them.”

The previous SNP minority administration relied on Green and Liberal Democrat support in 2010 when introducing the existing presumption against three-month sentences, and was forced to climb down from original plans to tackle sentences of up to six months.

The government is now planning a series of trials to test methods of further reducing the number of short jail terms. The average jail sentence is around nine months long.

Cyrus Tata, Professor of Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Strathclyde, told The Herald that the most effective outcome of the consultation could be an end to jail sentences shorter than one year.

Professor Tata said: “Rather than using the number of months, it would be better to specify the kinds of offences that would normally be non-imprisonable.

“But if the number of months is the only tool in the box, it would need to be consistent with summary powers, currently 12 months, to have any real impact.”

Such a move would bring Scotland in line with Belgium, where jail sentences of less than one year were recently scrapped.

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