By Professor Ross Deuchar

I RECENTLY interviewed a young prison inmate named Paul, who had been sentenced for serious assault. Paul had been brought up in a socially deprived neighbourhood just outside Glasgow, and had suffered abuse, neglect and household dysfunction during his childhood. From the age of 12, he had experienced mental health issues – but had never had these addressed. As he neared his release date, I feared his unresolved issues might inevitably lead him to reoffend.

In a MacKay-Hannah conference in Edinburgh tomorrow (Criminal Justice in Scotland: Effectively Tackling Offending and Reoffending) I will argue that our justice system is good on rhetoric, but still flawed in practice. In its Justice in Scotland: Vision and Priorities document, the Scottish Government places a focus on prevention, early intervention and on the need for fair, effective and person-centred services, including access to health services. Unfortunately, all of this was missing from Paul’s experiences.

All the evidence suggests that premature contact with the criminal justice system can have criminogenic effects on young people, and that prison is the least effective method of reducing reoffending. The plans to extend the presumption against short sentences to 12 months is a welcome one, but we need a more radical change in the way funding is allocated in the justice system and how the judiciary operates. We need to routinely address the root causes of offending behaviour, to ensure guys like Paul avoid recidivism.

Our courts are still largely characterised by adversarial approaches, and it would be useful to consider how we might further integrate treatment services with criminal justice processing in the future. Research has illustrated that the mental health courts operating in the United States (of which there are approximately 350) have had a significant impact on reducing recidivism. Rather than applying punishment, judges, attorneys, case workers and mental health services collaborate to create treatment and supervision plans. The non-adversarial court interactions encourage greater offender compliance and help to support them in addressing the underlying issues that stimulate their offending. In Scotland, we need to see less of our budget spent on policing and custody and more on supporting the further introduction of problem-solving courts that address the psychological issues that often underpin offending.

I also believe that our prison system needs to evolve, with more of an emphasis on moving inmates on more quickly. It is estimated that up to 80 per cent of Scottish inmates suffer from mental health issues. We can look towards Scandinavian countries for inspiration, where it has been found that not treating prisoners like prisoners leads to reduced levels of psychiatric problems and (in turn) reduced levels of reoffending. In Denmark, there are eight open prisons with more than1,100 places (four times the number of open places available in Castle Huntly). Recent reports suggest that there were only 24 reports of self-harm among Danish inmates last year, compared to more than 400 in Scotland. Putting people with mental illness in traditional closed prisons not only victimises the most vulnerable, but also inhibits rehabilitation and increases the risk of recidivism.

The associations between poor mental health, incarceration and reoffending are clear, and the strong focus on a preventative approach within Scotland’s justice strategy is welcome. But we need a shift in spending and thinking that really allows us to make this happen. As I learned from Paul, we still place too much emphasis on incapacitating the most disadvantaged, rather than supporting them to change.

* The author is assistant dean and director of the Interdisciplinary Research Unit on Crime, Policing and Social Justice in the School of Education, University of the West of Scotland.