Criminal justice is never far from the news, and this week editors and MSPs alike have been feasting on the possibilities offered by the new community payback orders.
Ever since the "presumption against short prison sentences" was first mooted I have wondered what difference it would make in practice, given the pre-existing raft of statutory disincentives to jailing people who have never been inside before. Such musings are strengthened by the release this week of the information regarding the records of those imprisoned for the first time (see news item). With over 1,000 such offenders last year having five or more previous convictions to their name, of whom over 300 had more than 10 and 28 more than 20, you might think that the courts have been in effect applying such an approach already.
Not that I for one question the view that short sentences don't as a rule do a lot of good and that it would be better having offenders put something back into the community if that is feasible. And I used to think it odd that community service in its old form was only available if the offence was serious enough to justify a prison sentence. Perhaps that was a recognition of the need to keep numbers manageable – but then you could get the performance of unpaid work as a condition of probation, so that may not be the full story.
So I do think that community payback orders are an advance in representing a more flexible form of disposal, with a menu of possible requirements that courts can impose as part of an order (see Journal feature for more). But legitimate questions have been and continue to be asked about sufficiency of funding, and enforcement of performance, despite the acceptance that the most effective impact will derive from ensuring that the hours are put in as soon after sentence as possible.
Among the political point scoring there was some headline grabbing about whether knitting could be a sufficiently punitive form of work. Leaving aside the question of what percentage of those who find themselves up before the sheriff can actually knit, should we not recognise that there may be quite a few in poor physical shape, if not actually disabled, for performing the sort of manual labour that we might think of first when calling community service to mind? If the disposal is to work, we at least have to be as inclusive as possible in devising useful activities that offenders can be required to perform. If the element of compulsion and a sufficient level of demand on their time are there, that should also be put in the scales. And, of course, whether it proves more effective as a means of rehabilitation. I hope the methods are in place to watch closely on that score as the new orders are carried out.