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Justice Committee backs alternatives to custody, 21/03/03 [S]

The Justice 1 Committee has published the results of its inquiry into alternatives to custody in Scotland. The report explores the types of offenders currently being imprisoned and the alternatives available.

The Committee believes short term prison sentences offer only limited opportunities for rehabilitation. It concludes that community alternatives to custody should be actively promoted and resourced for minor offences where a longer sentence is clearly inappropriate, particularly for three groups of offenders.

First, the Committee believes that very few people should be sent to prison for fine default, especially where the original offence could not in itself have led to a custodial sentence.

Secondly, the Committee recommends that more residential bail schemes should be made available as an alternative to remanding people in custody, although remand should continue to be used where someone represents a danger to the public, or where there are concerns that bail conditions will be breached.

Thirdly, widespread evidence was heard that there are a substantial number of women imprisoned in Scotland who should not necessarily be there as they do not represent a danger to the public. The Committee agrees with this view.

The lack of appropriate programmes and facilities in the community was cited in evidence as the main reason for these women being sent to prison. The Committee therefore welcomes the Executive's commitment to fund the development of such programmes, and also believes that adequate residential places for women offenders should be provided across Scotland.

In addition to existing alternative sentences, the Committee supports mediation and restorative justice projects. These projects can demonstrate to the community where the offence was committed that action is being taken, and they allow offenders opportunities to face up to the impact of their crimes.

Strong evidence was received suggesting that provision of programmes to support community penalties is patchy and that current funding levels are not adequate. The Committee believes that sheriffs should have confidence that community sentences available to the court can be delivered if they chose to impose them on offenders. The report therefore recommends that the Executive invests more resources into alternatives to custody to ensure that there is adequate and consistent provision of programmes across Scotland.

In particular, the Committee is extremely concerned about the acute shortage in criminal justice social workers in Scotland. Criminal justice social workers are key to the delivery and supervision of community sentencing in terms of the production of social enquiry reports and bringing breaches of community disposals to the attention of the courts. The Committee recommends that the Executive invests more resources into criminal justice social work. The Committee also believes that it is vital that existing and new resources are deployed effectively.

The Committee believes that the focus should be on more efficient use of existing measures, and recommends that successful schemes piloting community sentences should simultaneously be rolled out across Scotland to avoid the risk of ""postcode justice"".

The Committee also believes that community disposals should not only address offending behaviour, but should also tackle associated problems such as health (including mental health), addiction, accommodation and employment.

The report also calls for more information to be gathered and published about the extent, costs and results of community sentencing across the country.

Committee Convener Christine Grahame said:

""We are recommending that the Executive increase support for alternatives to custody for minor offences primarily because the evidence shows that such measures are at least as effective in reducing offending as short prison sentences.

""The Committee's research last year showed that public support for alternatives to custody increases when more information is provided about the outcomes of such sentences, and the circumstances when they are applied. As far as the Committee is concerned, what counts is what works, and moves to reduce crime through community sentences should never be seen as applying a 'soft option'.

""Promotion of these alternatives should be a particular priority for three groups of offenders: those on remand, fine defaulters and women convicted of minor offences. The Committee believes that a substantial number of women are imprisoned unnecessarily where alternatives to custody would provide more appropriate answers.

""At the moment there are often delays in bringing offenders who have breached the terms of their community sentences. These delays reduce the credibility of such sentences, and make courts reluctant to use them. A greater and more effective long-term provision of criminal justice social work resources is required to ensure that breaches are dealt with rigorously.

""It remains a fact that Scotland imprisons the third largest proportion of its population of any country in Western Europe, and these numbers are still rising.

""We examined the implications of this increase in the prison population in the review we carried out last year of the Prison Estates, and we believe that a serious commitment to appropriate alternatives to custody would provide a net saving to the public purse as well as reducing the pressure on the prison service.

""Both our successor Committee and the Executive must continue to work on this issue. Their aims, like ours, should focus on reducing offending and responding to the needs of victims.""


There are five main alternatives to custody available to the courts in Scotland: probation orders, community service orders, restriction of liberty orders, drug treatment and testing orders (DTTOs) and supervised attendance orders. All of these except DTTOs are available across the whole country.

In 2001 Scotland imprisoned 121 people per 100,000 of population. In Western Europe only England and Portugal, where numbers imprisoned are falling, show higher imprisonment rates.

Evidence was given that all three problems overlap in HMP Cornton Vale, Scotland's only women's prison. The Committee heard that more than half the women sent to Cornton Vale each year are there on remand and the majority of these women do not end up with a custodial sentence. Furthermore, most women in Cornton Vale are serving very short sentences, and nearly half are sent there for fine default.More information is available on the Scottish Executive website.

Further Information

  1. Justice 1 - 3rd Report 2003 - Volume 2
  2. Justice 1 Committee