SCOTLAND must drop its Christian "urge to punish", according to one of its leading clerics and moral philosophers.

Richard Holloway, the former episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh, has warned that even secular Scots are stuck in theological thinking of offenders as free-willed sinners.

In a keynote speech to a conference on criminal justice, he said the time had come for reforms its criminal justice system for adults in the way it did for children half a century ago.

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HeraldScotland:

Punishment, Mr Holloway said, hangs over national thinking about justice "like the Haar off the North Sea".

He said: "The theological understanding of sin as willed, freely chosen disobedience has gone deep into Scotland’s psyche, even among people who think their attitudes are formed more by secular than religious forces.

"So wrong actions are judged not against the long, often sorry story of human history; but, as it were, in a historical or moral vacuum."

Criminal justice experts of all political stripes have long understood that jail does not work for many of the people who end up behind bars.

Nationalist leaders in Holyrood and Conservative ones in Westminster are both trying to reduce prison numbers - despite tabloid calls for tougher sentences.

As of last week there were 7626 people in prison in Scotland, below all-time highs but still, on a per capita basis, one of the highest levels of incarceration in the established democracies of western Europe.

Outside former Communist countries, only England and Wales, Jersey and Gibraltar locked up a higher proportion of their people than Scotland. Even Spain and Portugal, with their recent history of authoritarian regimes, have lower prison rates than Scotland.

Mr Holloway's speech is part of a St Andrew's Day conference, organised by the Scottish Universities Insight Initiative, calling for a wider cultural reassessment of punishment to follow academic research.

Mr Holloway said religion formed the "basis for many of these outdated forms of moral outrage".

He praised the Kilbrandon Report of the 1960s, which introduced children's hearings and the concept that young people can change.

He added: "The depressing thing is that the Kilbrandon insight was never applied to the criminal justice system as a whole.

"So we go on feeding slightly older versions of the children from the Hearings System into the adult prison system, where they get lost in the cycle of repeat offending.

"It is always easier to forgive children than adults, of course; but offending adults all started out as offending children; and none of us ever ceases to be the child we were, even when we are no longer aware of its continuing and maybe troubling presence in our lives."

Mr Holloway's views were echoed by Kenny MacAskill, the former justice secretary.

Writing in today's Herald, Mr MacAskill said equated the calls for punishment after the Paris attacks of earlier this month with our cultural attitudes to offenders.

He said: "The clamour is for retribution for the crime and the demand is for ever more severe punishment.

"For sure, there are a few individuals who perpetrate such horrendous crimes that forgiveness is hard to envisage; and who pose such a danger to our society that detention for a long time, if not indefinitely is needed. They are few.

"The majority of prisoners have committed crimes for which they require to be held accountable and to atone for. However, they can be reformed and will be released back into our communities. They should be returned improved not embittered. Moreover, prison is only for a minority of our offenders."