HUMZA Yousaf has defended the increased use of community sentences, amid fears they are allowing criminals to continue offending.

The Justice Secretary said community payback orders (CPOs) were “hugely valuable” and helping reduce reoffending, as he visited a CPO garden scheme in Midlothian.

A fifth of prosecutions result in a community sentence, up from 13% a decade ago.

CPOs, which are designed to benefit local communities with unpaid work, made up 86% of the 18,600 community sentences in 2016-17.

Their use is expected to increase next year when the current presumption against sentences of three months or less is extended to be extended to 12 months or less.

However the Scottish Tories claim they are a form of “soft touch” justice.

Almost a third of offenders given community sentences reoffended in 2015/16.

Figures released by the Care Inspectorate last week showed 16 murders, 15 attempted murders, 49 sexual offences, 60 serious assaults and three abductions were committed by people on community supervision or licence between February 2015 and December 2017.

Mr Yousaf was speaking on a visit to Mayfield Public Park in Midlothian, where a group of offenders have created a community garden on a disused former bowling green.

He said serious incidents were a very small percentage of crimes committed on CPOs.

He said around 6m hours of unpaid work had been carried out since 2011 and greater use of community sentences has contributed to a 19-year low in the reconviction rate.

“Somebody on a short custodial sentence is going to reoffend twice as often as somebody on a community payback order, so the empirical data is very strong.

“But coming to a project like this and seeing the work that they are doing and talking to the individuals who are benefitting from it gives me a whole different experience.”

He added: “The vast majority of community payback orders are completed successfully.

“When we looked at the serious incidents in community justice social work, serious incidents only make up around 1% of all of those on a community sentence.

“We have to always look to see where we can improve but I’m always driven by the data, by the smart justice argument that shows that community payback orders are much more effective at reducing reoffending than, for example, short custodial sentences.

“If we want to have less victims of crime then one big part of that of course is by reducing reoffending, so the evidence speaks for itself.

“Where improvements can be made, we have to make them, we should continue to do that, but the evidence very much speaks for itself.”

Sharon Hill, development worker at Mayfield and Easthouses Development Trust (MAEDT) which manages the bowling green and pavilion, said the work done by the CPO team has made a huge difference to the project.

She said: “They have given us a year of time, if they had not been involved it would be a year before we get to the stage we are at now. They have really really advanced the project.”

Tory justice spokesman Liam Kerr said: “As the justice secretary knows, Community payback orders must be properly monitored and speedily implemented if they are to be effective.

“However, as we know, many offenders have to wait months to start these orders and a third of them are never completed, due to lack of oversight.

“Reoffending rates have remained stubbornly high, but the SNP’s only answer is to empty our prisons and abandon sentences of less than 12 months.

“The SNP’s soft touch justice approach is repeatedly failing victims and the public”