Justice Secretary defends community sentences amid fears over victim protection

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The Justice Secretary has defended the robustness of community sentences amid concerns about the protection of victims.

In a statement to parliament Michael Matheson insisted that measures were being put in place to address fears over extending the presumption against short sentences from three to 12 months.

The pledge was made last week in First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s programme for government following a consultation and is expected to be in place by the end of 2018.

While the majority of responses to the consultation were in favour of the move, concerns were raised about the resourcing of community sentencing and the protection of victims, particularly of domestic violence.

Labour’s Clare Baker said the presumption would be a hard sell to victims of crime and called on Mr Matheson to ensure community options “are properly resourced and that they provide a robust alternative that victims can have confidence in”.

“He will need to work hard to convince the public of the merits of his argument, particularly those who have been victims of crimes which are often very distressing and even life-changing,” she said.

Tory MSP Liam Kerr also questioned the effectiveness of community sentences, arguing that after a decade of an SNP government the rate of reoffending has “barely shifted”.

He said: “Can the cabinet secretary really refer to the current system of community sentences as robust and effective when a third of community payback orders are never completed and some offenders are waiting over a year for their work placement to begin?”

Mr Matheson said the completion rate of community payback orders was higher than the previous system of community service and the courts had greater confidence in the newer system.

He added that the re-conviction rate was at its lowest level in 18 years and an extra £4 million pounds had been given to local authorities for community sentence programmes.

” We know that short prison sentences do little to rehabilitate people, or to reduce the likelihood of their reoffending,” he said.

“We know that short-term imprisonment disrupts families and communities, and adversely affects employment opportunities and stable housing – the very things that evidence shows support desistence from offending. We know that this is both a poor use of public resources, and a waste of human potential.”

Mr Matheson said the proposed Domestic Abuse Bill would ensure that courts considered the need to protect victims from further offences when sentencing.

Developments in electronic monitoring would also help to improve the safety of women and children affected by domestic abuse w hile a new body, Community Justice Scotland, would r aise awareness of the benefits of community sentences and build public support, he said.

“I believe that in combination, these measures address the concerns expressed by respondents to the consultation.

“That is why we will only implement the extended presumption once the relevant provisions of the Domestic Abuse Bill are in force.”

Last week’s programme for government also included plans for a Management of Offenders Bill which will include extending the use of electronic monitoring of offenders in the community.

Mr Matheson said the legislation would ” expand the range of options and enable the use of new technology, such as GPS”.