Alec Spencer is convenor of the Scottish Consortium on Crime and Criminal Justice and is an Honorary Professor at Stirling University. He was previously a prison governor and Director of Rehabilitation and Care (SPS).
It seems like a long time, in fact nine years ago, that I gave evidence to the Scottish Prisons Commission (McLeish) and suggested a restructuring of the Scottish prison system into two tiers – a national system for long-term offenders and a local system for short term and remand prisoners. My idea was to give local authorities (then CJAs) the funds and power to manage local prisons and remand institutions in their area. This involved the power to switch resources and to purchase bail hostel or supported accommodation provision, programmes and other services required as an alternative to sending offenders to custody.
This change would have the effect of reversing the ‘perverse incentive’ which makes it cheaper for local communities to send offenders to prison (funded by the government) than to provide services for them in their own communities. It would also enable local communities to move resources from expensive prison places to more effective and more economic community interventions and services. Both of these aspects would create a downward pressure on prison numbers.
I am pleased that the reputable Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has just published a report, Prisons and prevention: Giving local areas the power to reduce offending, suggesting that the Ministry of Justice should follow similar ideas in England and Wales. The report suggests handing £400m from prisons to local authorities and then charging them for every local offender sentenced to less than 24 months. They felt it would act as an incentive to improve local crime prevention. The report also points to similar successful youth justice schemes in the US.
Let’s hope that here in Scotland, Michael Matheson, our Cabinet Secretary for Justice will similarly consider the potential benefits from following such ideas.