Henry McLeish, former chair of the Scottish Prisons Commission, asked delegates at a recent Holyrood conference to consider an end to six-month custodial sentences in all but the most exceptional circumstances.
At the annual female offenders conference earlier in January, McLeish noted that in the category of six months or under there are those who are serious offenders who should have had much longer sentences. He also suggested that there should be investment into alternatives than prison for those who would otherwise be sentenced to less than six months.
Between 2005 and 2006, 83 per cent of prison sentences were for six months or less and 57 per cent of all prison sentences were for 90 days or less. For 2013-14, two-thirds of people receiving a custodial sentence in 2013-14 were sentenced to six months or less. Almost two in five of all those sentenced were given between three and six months.
McLeish’s comments echo those of current chief inspector of prisons, David Strang, who previously told Holyrood that short sentences can prove “an expensive way of not working constructively with people”.
Official projections for Scotland’s female prison population are expected to rise to between 560 and 710 by the end of the decade and the figures are increasing for the male population, too.
“No matter what we do, no matter whether unemployment is up or down, crime is up or down, austerity is up or down, the prison population just keeps going up and up and up,” said McLeish.
“To me that’s the ultimate absurdity of where we are and the cause of much of our frustration [that] no matter what we do, there are just more people in prison.”