John’s Speech Prisoners (Control of Release) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

I, too, thank the many people who gave the evidence that formed the basis of the Justice Committee’s report. I will quote straight away from one of them, Professor Fergus McNeill of the University of Glasgow, who said:

“To put it crudely, simply ‘storing the risky’ for a little bit longer doesn’t in fact serve to reduce it—the key issue for public safety is the condition in and conditions under which people are detained and then released, not how long they serve. How long they serve is principally a matter of ‘just deserts’ or proportionality of punishment to the offence.”

Professor McNeill also encouraged us to raise the level of debate. For that reason, I welcome the change to the initial restriction of the bill to sex offenders and prisoners serving more than 10 years. That restriction might have been popular, but it was certainly not evidenced by the reoffending rates that we heard about.

Although some people still want to talk tough, I would sooner talk just and effective. The debate has been wide-ranging and has stretched beyond the stage 1 report. As other members have done, rather than be critical of the approach that the Scottish Government has taken, I say that it is commendable that the Government has listened and responded accordingly.

I will quote another contribution that the committee received:

“Recalibration of sentencing—so that when a sentence is announced or laid down in court it relates to a real time, rather than its being something that has been chopped and changed around—would be very helpful indeed for everybody involved, from the perpetrator who has been convicted, to the victim. A huge amount of clarity is required, but we have the potential to join things together and to come up with something coherent, which we do not have at the moment.”—[Official Report, Justice Committee, 24 February 2015; c 37.]

That was said not by a Conservative politician but by Pete White of Positive Prisons? Positive Futures. It is important that we have clarity. The policy memorandum talks about reducing offending and improving public safety. Surely everyone can go along with that. It also talks about the minimum period of compulsory supervision in the community.

We must understand again what the purpose of prison is. It is not only to punish, but to improve public safety—on more than one occasion, we heard the cabinet secretary talk about dangerous prisoners. However, crucially, the purpose of prison is also long-term re-integration—or, I suggest, integration because many of the people who find themselves to be the subject of custodial sentences have never really been integrated into society in the first place.

It will be years before the effects of the bill kick in and there is an opportunity to see reintegration. That will be the gauge of the proposals’ effectiveness and will determine how they are judged, but it will be some time in the future.

We must look outwith the prison walls, too. I commend the outward-looking approach of Colin McConnell, the SPS chief executive, and his staff. They have welcomed the proposed guaranteed minimum release period. As has been said on more than one occasion, it is important that we continually assess the risks and put in place measures to address those risks, which includes the two-day early release. The Scottish Prison Service also has outreach workers who can facilitate the integration that we all want to see happening.

Integration will partly be about the effectiveness of management programmes in the prisons. There are challenges around that. We have heard from the Scottish Prison Service that the programmes are resource intensive and require specialist delivery skills. We have also heard that the SPS delivers them at the most appropriate time in a prisoner’s sentence, taking into account their willingness and readiness to engage and, crucially, the availability of programmes, which has been a concern for us all.

It is important to say that prisoners are not a uniform group. Therefore, individual assessment must be made of individuals’ needs.

The purposeful activity review that was undertaken by the Scottish Prison Service has been mentioned. The Scottish Government’s response talked about developing learning and employability skills in order to build life skills and resilience and to motivate personal engagement with the prison and community-based services. That was welcomed by Positive Prison? Positive Futures.

The Parole Board for Scotland’s role has been mentioned. I absolutely agree with the cabinet secretary: I trust its judgment. We know that it welcomes the proposed post-release period.

The cabinet secretary sought views on the minimum period. The figure of six months has been mentioned. My suggestion is that the issue is not about the quantity or the length of the period; rather, it is about its quality. It will also be important to have in place robust mechanisms to support people when they have been released.

The Scottish Human Rights Commission has been mentioned. I hope that the Government will respond positively to its comments.

Early release has been frequently talked about. That is the beyond the gift of this chamber. Housing is a challenge, but so, too, are benefits. Therefore, having the Department for Work and Pensions on board for anything that is done would be helpful.

I want to see a move to end short sentences and I want robust community disposals. Social Work Scotland has talked about a review of sentencing guidelines. I also want to see the Scottish Government do more than simply note the suggestion of extending MAPPA. If we want to enhance public safety, that would, ideally, take in violent offenders and not just sexual offenders.

An issue that is frequently mentioned is co-ordination across the criminal justice system. It is key. The Scottish Government’s initial approach was challenging, but I welcome the reforms that are being suggested. However, rather than talk tough, let us talk just and effective.