Prison Policy in the News

The need for penal reform in Scotland appeared on the front page of The Herald this week as Lord Carloway highlighted the high rate of Scottish imprisonment. Engaging in this public debate, The Howard League Scotland sent a letter of response which was published on the 18th of January, which read:

Scotland should have a great sense of hope and almost relief that at last a judge has come out publicly with what is needed to be said about sentencing. Those of us in The Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland (HLS) are hugely heartened by the front page splash in The Herald of 14 January headed “Carloway: we need culture shift in prison sentencing”. We all need this culture shift to meet the needs of victims and offenders (remembering too that individuals can at different times be victim or offender), to make Scotland a safer place.

Imprisonment does not make one less likely to reoffend on release, quite the opposite-despite the best efforts of our prison service. Whatever good work is done in prisons can be negated by the difficulties experienced on release. The same work with offenders is more effectively done in the community-but of course it does need to be available and adequately resourced. Scotland locks up a disproportionate high number compared with other countries and too many prisoners are poor and vulnerable, have disadvantaged backgrounds and mental health or other issues. All of this is well supported by research and those who work in criminal justice and by those in wider society with knowledge and understanding of Scotland’s penal policy and practice.

To make a culture shift it is essential that the judiciary are on side with and preferably driving the change, as was the case in Finland when that country decided to substantially reduce its prison population twenty or more years ago. They did this successfully and with no adverse impact on offending rates. It is, therefore, the most promising indication of the possibility of change ever seen in Scotland, to have Lord Carloway recognise all the above, as the article says “it would be hard to disagree with the “generality” that the prison population is too high and that in some instances the wrong people are behind bars.” This is especially the case when crime is at a 39-year low.”

Lord Carloway’s statement will be welcomed by thoughtful and creative judges who seek to use their discretion in innovative ways to ensure they mainly hand down effective community sentences which are the most likely to reduce recidivism. Those judges, and let us assume it will be the vast majority, will want the opportunity Lord Carloway promises to learn more about current evidence in the field of criminology, potentially ground breaking transformation currently being promoted within Scottish prisons, and the programmes available for offenders within community sentences. It would be shocking if any judge did not want to be “up to speed on modern thinking and practice” and to “refresh their ideas of what is available in terms of practice”.

Many judges, of course, are already up to speed on this and are hindered in progressive, effective sentencing by the lack of, or patchy nature of, community sentences facilities. The culture change must include a shift from investing in prison buildings to the more cost-effective early intervention, restorative justice and other justice work in the community.

Read Further: Carloway: We need culture shift in prison sentencing