SHERIFFS and JPs are continuing to use jail as a short-term option for hundreds of offenders, despite ministers hoping it would be a last resort.

Official figures today confirmed Scottish courts are sending fewer criminals to jail since a presumption against prison terms of less than a year came into force.

But the drop appears less than advocates of the change hoped.

Data for the new regime showed the number of short sentences fell from 12.8 to 9.5 per cent of all court disposals between April and November 2019.

The number of court cases resulting in community sentences rose over the same period.

SNP Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf welcomed the early results, saying it should help reduce repeat-offending and improve prospects for rehabilitation.

The presumption against short sentences started in 2011, when courts were told not to jail people for three months or less unless no other disposal was appropriate.

This was extended last year to a presumption against sentences of 12 months or less for offences committed on or after 4 July 2019.

Those released from a prison sentence of 12 months or less are re-convicted nearly twice as often than those sentenced to serve community payback orders.

Extending the presumption against short prison sentences was intended to break this cycle of reoffending.

However initial monitoring of the new system found that, even at the lowest point, there were still 665 jail terms of less than a year in November and December.

This was the lowest since April 2017, and was driven by fewer jail terms for men.

Conversely, the numbers of community disposals reached their highest level since April 2017 last October, when 1,841 disposals were community orders, 24% of all disposals.

SNP Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “Although very early days, we are beginning to see a modest reduction in our prison population. This data suggests our penal reforms are having a positive impact - reducing the number of short custodial sentences and encouraging the use of more effective community disposals – although it is too early to directly attribute changes in sentencing to the extended presumption.

“Custody remains the right place for those who commit the most serious crimes and who clearly pose a risk of harm to the public and I want to ensure Scotland’s hard-working prison workers have the capacity to focus on work to rehabilitate these individuals.

“That requires fewer people to be caught in the revolving door of short-term prison sentences, which benefits no-one.

“Short sentences disrupt many of the things we know are most likely to help reduce reoffending such as housing, employment, family relationships and access to health care and support.

“People undertaking community sentences have told me directly of the positive impact it is having in helping them to turn their lives around and contribute to their families and society.”