Scotland’s new Community Justice Bill: Who has said what?Posted: December 2, 2015
How best to reduce reoffending? MSPs and others debate
Reoffending costs Scotland £3bn every year. The good news is that MSPs have a plan to reduce it in the form of the new Community Justice Bill. The bad news is not everyone agrees on how it should work.
What does the bill entail?
The bill aims to reduce reoffending by replacing short term prison sentences, which often prove ineffective, with community sentences.
Scotland’s eight community justice authorities (CJA) are to be replaced by 32 community planning partnerships (CPP) and a new national body called Community Justice Scotland (CJS). And lots of new acronyms of course.
Committee backs bill but recognise significant problems
MSPs have unanimously backed the general principles of an overhaul of community justice, but Holyrood’s Justice Committee found no “great enthusiasm for the exact model in the bill” from experts.
However, it also acknowledged that the current system had “significant problems” with accountability, funding and complexity. The committee was not yet convinced the new system would solve these problems.
Committee convener Christine Grahame said:
“We have urged the Government to clarify the duties of the national and local bodies and the balance of responsibilities between the two, and on how the model is expected to work in practice, to clear up ambiguity over the new arrangements.”
Ms Grahame acknowledged “that it would be difficult to achieve [a model] that all bodies involved in community justice would be wholly satisfied with.”
Minister makes case against short sentencing
Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs said reoffending costs an estimated £3bn a year in Scotland. It also has well-established links to poverty, mental illness, addiction and homelessness.
He said the government wanted a fairer justice system in Scotland “that reflects the values of a modern and progressive nation, in which prison and, in particular, short-term sentences are used less frequently“.
He noted the Justice Committee’s concerns “that the outcomes for community justice should be framed more broadly, so that re-offending rates are not the only measure of success”.
Mr Wheelhouse said ministers would provide £1.6m a year over three years to implement moves set out in the bill.
Conservatives seek redefinition of community justice
Conservative justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: “The most controversial aspect of this legislation is the narrow definition of community justice.”
“This failure to make any reference to prevention, or indeed early intervention, represents a major change. Worryingly, the definition in the Bill was not consulted upon and appears to have come as a surprise to stakeholders and more importantly to the statutory partners.”
Mr Wheelhouse said he recognised the definition of community justice in the bill “could be strengthened” to include early intervention and the prevention of first-time offending.
Labour raise economic concerns about the bill
“The Bill does not refer to the interests and involvement of victims in particular, and the wider community more generally….Community justice alternatives to imprisonment will only be accepted by the general public, and by the judiciary while sentencing, if they have demonstrated to be effective in keeping the public safe and in changing individuals’ offending behaviour.”
Lib Dems say a stronger response needed
Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes said her party supported the general principles of the bill, but that it needed “significant changes” as the current version was “too timid to bring about the dramatic change needed”.
“More Scots are behind bars per head of population than in almost any other nation in Western Europe. Punishment and retribution have dominated penal policy for far too long and do nothing to reduce reoffending levels, the economic and social costs of which are immense. “It is vital that community justice arrangements are strengthened and I urge the government to heed the warnings of criminal justice voluntary sector organisations and others who have raised concerns about the bill.
Significant alteration required say non-profit sector
A recent letter signed by several organisations – including Apex Scotland, Circle Scotland, Families Outside, Howard League Scotland, Turning Point Scotland, Venture Trust and Up-2-Us – said the government’s proposals needed “significant alteration”.
They raised concerns over the “bureaucratic burden” and a lack of accountability. The letter said that the bill:
“…does not change the funding arrangements for community justice services in any significant way” resulting in “no incentives or levers to shift resources in the long term from custodial to non-custodial services”
Maggie Mellon of the Scottish Consortium on Crime and Criminal Justice called on the Scottish government to end all sentences of a year or less. She said this would save money and improve the quality of justice. She said:
“Everybody knows that the worst thing you can do to people is to put them in jail and disrupt their lives, because they actually come out as offenders. That’s what prison is good for – creating offenders.”
Turning Point Scotland said: “It is … disappointing that the bill does not explicitly direct planning at both national and local levels to consider prevention especially within the wider context of the community planning process.”
Barnardo’s said: “If we are to take a truly preventative approach to community justice, we must start at the beginning and focus on how to keep people out of the justice system and within their communities. As it stands, the definition is restricted to those who have already offended.”
Victim Support Scotland said: “The definition does not allow for a greater focus on prevention and early intervention in line with the recommendations of the Christie Commission.”