Fast-track justice for low-level offenders

New plans for fast-track post-court procedures will see low-level offenders sent out to repay their dues to the community within hours of being sentenced.

The proposal is to establish a ‘one stop shop’ system which will see community service and social work staff housed within the court building or in nearby offices, meaning offenders can be transferred immediately from the dock down to be assessed, allocated, and then taken directly to their first community payback work squad placement.

A pilot of the initiative, to be funded by the Scottish Government, is to take place at Glasgow Sheriff Court with social work staff housed directly across the street.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said:

“We want to see low level offenders out paying back communities by doing some tough manual labour.

“Punishment should be tough and justice should be immediate which is why we are piloting this new initiative. The aim is to get these low level offenders out doing manual work to improve communities within hours of being sentenced.

“Whether it is cleaning streets of graffiti, renovating elderly care homes, restoring fallen gravestones or, as we saw during the recent severe weather conditions, helping to clear pavements of snow, these offenders should be repaying communities they have harmed.

“Prison is and always will be the right place for serious and dangerous offenders and recent statistics show we are beginning to get that balance right. Crime is down, serious crime is down, fear of crime is down, the number of people carrying out crime is down, and those that do break the law are being punished swiftly by Scotland’s justice system with criminals now being punished through the longest prison sentences in a decade.

“But at the other end of the scale, we need to address Scotland’s appalling reoffending rate for low level offenders. These offenders are going in and out of prison, time and time again and committing more crime in communities upon release.

“It has gone on too long, has been ignored for years by successive Governments and it is time to stop. That is why we are doing something about it – and the UK and Irish Governments are now looking to follow our lead.

“All the evidence shows that getting offenders out doing some manual labour in the community works far better than short term prison sentences and actually stops them committing further crimes.

“The facts speak for themselves with three quarters of those sentenced to a short prison sentence of three months or less going on to reoffend within two years of getting out, but in direct comparison, three out of five given a tough community sentence do not.”

A spokesman for Glasgow City Council said:

“The council can see the benefits of using community reparation as a sentence in appropriate circumstances, both for the communities affected by crime and also the offenders themselves.

“We are very pleased to be involved in the fast track pilot as it will allow us to test the viability of such a scheme and see for ourselves the impact it will have on offenders and the wider community.”

The announcement of the fast track pilot comes as new figures show that 33,707 hours of snow clearing were undertaken by low level offenders during the recent adverse weather. On average there were 1314 offenders on community service out every single week across Scotland helping payback to their communities by clearing snow.

Tomorrow a ‘presumption against’ ineffective short prison sentences of three months or less in favour of a new Community Payback Order come into effect in Scotland.

Judges will still be able to sentence someone to three months in jail if they wish, but there will be a general presumption that low level offenders will instead be sent out to do some tough manual labour to repay their dues to the communities they have harmed, backed by action to address any underlying problems that may be fuelling the crime – whether that be alcohol, drug or mental health problems.

The Scottish Government is committing £25,000 of funding in 2010-11 and £150,000 of funding in 2011-12 to Glasgow Community Justice Authority for the pilot, which will last one year. The pilot will then be fully evaluated. The commencement date for the pilot at Glasgow Sheriff Court will be announced shortly.