This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

SNP ministers are facing accusations of overseeing a “soft touch justice system” in Scotland – but the Government has been upfront about its intention to prosecute and jail fewer people as an overarching crime vision.

Today’s outrage thrown at the Scottish Government has been prompted by the Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain stressing it would “not be in the public interest” to prosecute people in possession of drugs as part of a safe consumption room pilot.

That move is part of a wider strategy set out by the Scottish Government to ensure only the most violent criminals end up behind bars.

But the safer consumption rooms pilot is in response to SNP ministers’ patience wearing thin with their Tory counterparts at Westminster refusing to treat one of Scotland’s most tragic health emergencies, drug-related deaths, as a health emergency.

Safe consumption rooms will not be a silver bullet to end Scotland’s shameful track record of drug deaths, but it will likely help. A cross-party group of MPs on the Commons Home Affairs Committee thinks so too, but the UK Government is continuing to stick its fingers in its ears and insist the full force of the justice system is the only strategy worth talking about.

The anger at the Scottish Government toning down the rhetoric on drug users is not a new concept, thought up overnight.

Two years ago, Ms Bain announced plans to allow police officers to issue warnings to those found to be in possession of Class A drugs – in the same way as can be done for Class B and C substances – as a way of reducing the number of people prosecuted for drug possession.

The Herald:

The Scottish Government faced the same accusations then as it does now – that it is being soft on criminals – on face value, a fairly juvenile criticism.

In February last year, then SNP justice secretary Keith Brown set out the Scottish Government’s strategy to overhaul the system when he bluntly explained that criminals would only be held in prisons “where they present a risk of serious harm”.

The plans pointed to a need to “redefine the role of custody” to acknowledge the “damaging impact of prison”.

Mr Brown, to his credit, was pretty plain in his attempts to justify the strategy.

He warned that “community interventions are more effective than short prison sentences”.

He added that instead of “the puerile practice of trying to look tough on crime after crime has happened”, his blueprint would “make sure that the difficult decisions which are required which will actually lead to less crime being committed, and that means fewer victims and less suffering”.

But being upfront with your bigger picture for justice does not do enough to reassure the public when victims are not looked after properly and reports suggest that in some cases, diversion from prosecution is being used in serious offences, including sex cases.

The Herald on Sunday exclusively reported that recorded police warnings, albeit just a handful, have been handed out for sexual offences.

Most RPWs issued in 2020/21 related to drug offences, with 6,448 issued – putting into perspective the 18 for ‘other sexual offences’.

But troublingly, the rules around RPWs remain secret, with police saying that making the guidelines public would allow "offenders to circumvent the law."

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In July, The Sunday Mail reported the account of a teenage girl whose alleged rapist avoided a criminal trial.

Kaitlyn Ward, who is now 17, told the paper that her alleged attacker being offered a diversion from prosecution left her “feeling like there isn’t a justice system at all” and was “a complete kick in the teeth”.

The outcry led to the Lord Advocate ordering a review of the policy to ensure it is “being used appropriately” – a stark acknowledgement that the strategy is not without problems.

The use of diversion from prosecution has been increasing since the pandemic.

Justice social work statistics released earlier this year showed that a record number of criminals avoided prosecution last year.

The number of diversions from prosecution cases increased by 20% between 2020-21 and 2021-22 to 2,700, the highest level in the last decade.

If the Scottish Government’s strategy to divert some offenders from prosecution is to receive the backing of the public, it will need to show that victims are being placed at the centre of the vision and that serious crimes are being punished as expected.

Ministers are still yet to set up a dedicated fund to help victims of domestic abuse leaving violent partners, three years after promising they would.

In 2020, the Scottish Government agreed to establish a “leavers’ fund”, but ministers have confirmed they are yet to set it up, much to the alarm of charities including Rape Crisis Scotland.

If moves to divert criminals from prosecution continue, as there is justification to do so in some capacity, victims cannot be ignored and must be central to that vision.

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