The long dead American socialist Eugene Debs once famously said "while there is one soul in prison, I am not free".
A modern, progressive society should never see prison as something that is "good" – it is, at best, a necessary evil. There are few people in prison who are "bad" or "evil"; most are there because they are poor, disadvantaged, under-educated or survived trauma, neglect and abuse in childhood. They are the people without chances. Our prisoners are often just as sinned against as they are sinners.
So, calls by Scotland's Children's Commissioner to keep 16 and 17-year-olds out of jail are to be lauded. Tam Baillie suggests that instead these young offenders should be sent to secure accommodation. No-one is suggesting that teenage murderers and rapists will be spared jail. They will spend a few years in secure accommodation and then transfer to adult prison when they come of age at 18. What will happen is that youngsters who have made mistakes will be spared the rigors of jail for short sentences and – hopefully – avoid becoming career criminals.
Make no mistake, these young people will have done unpleasant things – robbery and drug-dealing are not victimless crimes – and they will lose their liberty in secure care. But they will also have the chance to reform their lives before they are ground down by a prison system which mostly fails when it comes to rehabilitation. Our prisons are holding pens; Tam Baillie is taking a step in the right direction when he opens the debate about giving our youngest and most vulnerable a second chance before it is too late.
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