THE HERALD recently revealed at least 45 serious crimes have occurred in the last 15 months across Scotland at the hands of offenders who were under supervision in the community.
In some cases, these offenders had been released early from prison on licence, while others were serving community sentences. Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives' Chief Whip, John Lamont, responded to the news by suggesting the Scottish Government should lock up more offenders, abandon community sentences and ensure more time is spent providing stricter levels of supervision of those on licence.
It is, of course, extremely concerning to realise community supervision can sometimes fail to prevent reoffending and protect the public. But increasing the number of prison sentences and abandoning community sanctions is by no means the best way to prevent crime from occurring.
In the extensive work I have carried out with young offenders over the years, I have found many begin offending at a young age as a means of dealing with multiple types of social disadvantage. Many live in socially deprived communities and have watched one or both of their parents abuse alcohol and/or drugs. And, if they have had experience of a father-figure at all, he had often been violent towards them, their mothers and siblings.
Unfortunately, when they do end up in prison, short-term sentences fail to provide them with the type of care and attention that might undo some of the damage and address the root causes of their offending.
Research has illustrated that many offenders enter the prison system suffering from trauma because of addictions, mental health problems and abuse. Many leave prison and face difficulties in gaining employment and becoming reintegrated into communities. And so they inevitably drift back into addiction, violence and crime. One young man I worked with recently was 20 and on his sixth prison sentence. Since the age of 16 he had been in and out of prison, and repeatedly released back into the community without any of the underlying issues that stimulated his offending being addressed, much less resolved.
When I met him he was on a longer custodial sentence for a violent crime and had finally gained access to support programmes. He felt he benefited from going to workshops and learning about consequences and responsibilities but only wished he had experienced this much earlier. Prisons need to do a better job at rehabilitating offenders before they are released.
Alternatives in the community are not soft options and can often provide important opportunities for offenders to pay something back to the people and the neighbourhoods they have let down in the past.
Criminal desistance most often occurs where offenders gain opportunities to help others. One group of young men who had been involved in crime talked about their involvement in a community-based scheme where they acted as mentors to other youngsters on the periphery of offending. They described the euphoria they felt when they saw the fruits of their labour.
Yes, it is worrying 45 serious crimes occurred last year while offenders were being supervised in the community but we also need to remember there are thousands of other offenders involved in community-based initiatives who are turning their lives around.
Prison fails to deter young offenders from engaging in further crime. The latest figures from Polmont Young Offenders Institution prove it: it is thought around 87% of the current inmates have been there before.
What does help young offenders to desist from crime: giving them opportunities for social support and taking on responsibilities for helping others. Locking up offenders won't provide those opportunities, but community supervision schemes will.
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