Scotland politics

Lib Dems back end of short jail terms

B Hall Barlinnie Prison
Image caption Prison sentences of three months or less were effectively scrapped in Scotland in 2010

The Liberal Democrats have said they will back the Scottish government if it tries to end prison sentences of less than 12 months.

It comes after the country's chief inspector of prisons said it was clear shorter sentences do not cut crime.

Scottish courts have operated a presumption against prison sentences of three months or less since 2010.

The Scottish government has been consulting on whether to extend that to 12 months.

It believes that the prison population remains "unacceptably high", and has set out plans to invest in community services and electronic monitoring - but has not yet said whether it supports ending short-term sentences.

The minority SNP administration would need the support of at least one opposition party if it was to propose ending jail terms of less than 12 months.

'Healing communities'

The Scottish Greens already have a manifesto commitment to abolish short prison sentences - with the Liberal Democrats now confirming that they would also be willing to back the move.

The party's justice spokesman Liam McArthur said: "All the evidence shows that community-based justice programmes and diversion-from-prosecution projects are far more successful in reducing reoffending and healing communities than short stints in prison.

"Liberal Democrats will use our votes in Holyrood to support these measures if the SNP bring them forward. The SNP government can have a majority in parliament if they take this sensible step.

"We don't need the support of the reactionary Conservatives or the muddled Labour Party to get this through. The Liberal Democrats will step up to vote this into law."

Image caption David Strang told BBC Scotland that short prison sentences do not reduce crime

The Scottish Conservatives have argued that it would be "ludicrous" to end short-term prison sentences, which they say should continue to play an important role in the justice system.

The party's justice spokesman Liam Kerr said: "There are many offences and circumstances where a custodial sentence of up to 12 months could be an appropriate punishment, and we need to allow judges the choice to hand down such sentences if they deem it necessary."

Speaking to BBC Scotland at the weekend, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons David Strang said that more than half of those released from a prison sentence of less than 12 months were reconvicted within a year.

He added: "I think we're sending too many people to prison for short sentences. The evidence is very clear that if you want to reduce crime then you don't send people to prison for a short time."

'Provide alternatives'

He called for more fines or community payback orders so offenders could be "repairing some of the damage they've done".

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: "We have consistently stated that the consultation responses on extending the presumption against short prison sentences would inform our decisions and it is only right that we take the time to consider these views.

"We'll continue to discuss how best to take this forward with the relevant stakeholders."

She said the Scotland prison population was "unacceptably high" and actions being taken to "provide alternatives to ineffective short-term prison sentences and to prevent re-offending" include investing in community sentences and electronic monitoring.

But she stressed that for some crimes jail was "absolutely justified."

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