Thirteen years on from a landmark report that recommended Scotland should embrace the Finnish system of community justice – an Audit Scotland report suggests we’re roughly back where we started.

As one of the original members of the Scottish Government’s Prisons Commission in 2008, that’s more than disappointing. It suggests the agency of government in changing attitudes about punishment and rehabilitation is seriously limited.

Clearly some sentencers continue to avoid the community alternatives they never liked in the first place. The Audit Scotland report reveals that community payback orders (CPOs) were used four times more often in Clackmannanshire than East Renfrewshire for example. Where there’s a will there’s clearly a way – and vice versa.

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Another big problem – the number of people currently held on remand in jail is shocking and seems to have risen during Covid as court backlogs pile up. Furthermore, the length of time a person can be held was extended by six months during the pandemic.

So today roughly a quarter of folk in our jails are untried prisoners, held on remand and the proportion of them stuck there for four months has trebled over the last 10 years.

That’s a grim scenario – banged up inside cells for 23 hours a day during Covid, always at the back of the queue for education or sports activity, unable to join work programmes and living day to day without any definite release date. Has this contributed to the small but sharp increase in prison suicides – who can say? But according to one activist "it’s mental torture, plain and simple".

The certain thing is that remand blasts fragile life arrangements to smithereens – especially for mothers.

It’s entirely possible for a woman to arrive in court, fully expecting to be home that day, only to be placed on remand so that no-one will collect her child from school and social services will be forced to step in if relatives cannot be found.

And for those who think there’s no smoke without fire, Howard League statistics suggest 70 per cent of females held on remand in Scotland are eventually released – either because they are found not guilty, because their offences don’t carry a prison sentence anyway or because their sentence has already been served.

The 2012 Angiolini report – commissioned after a spate of prison suicides and a rise in the female prison population – aimed to keep most women out of jail. But it seems none of its recommendations has been implemented. Today most untried women placed on remand are held inside men’s prisons.

How is this acceptable?

Research at Barlinnie shows time on remand can mean benefit conditions are breached triggering eviction and the loss of belongings if flats with rent arrears are cleared. So, remand prisoners are on a downward spiral even if they are released – penniless as they begin the five-week wait for a Universal Credit payment.

Ironically, convicted prisoners do get help to relocate back into the community and a discharge payment of £73. There’s evidence some remand prisoners have chosen to switch their plea to guilty so the prison regime will become somewhat easier and they’ll get that small bit of cash upon release, introduced to stop destitute prisoners from turning towards petty theft.

In short, Scotland is continuing to jail people for nuisance behaviour, trapping people inside a world of crime, destabilising lives and wasting taxpayer money. According to Audit Scotland, housing a prisoner in 2016 cost £37,344 compared to £1,894 for a community sentence.

We are still jailing three times more folk than most of our neighbours – except England – despite having a roughly similar crime rate. Exactly as we were doing in 2008. Back then, the McLeish Commission recommended an upper limit of 5,000 prisoners in Scotland. The total is now hovering around the 8,000 mark. That can’t be right.

Away from the world of remand, electronic tags are not being used fully as an alternative for convicted prisoners. Three years ago, 300 prisoners were released on tags. Now it’s just 41.

This could be down to the "error terror" amongst prison governors, sparked by the terrible case of Craig McLelland, stabbed to death in 2017 by a man who’d removed his electronic tag. Of course, after a terrible incident, caution is justified. But evidence suggests that overall, electronic tags work.

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Special efforts to reintegrate prisoners into the community also work. Covid saw emergency legislation to give 349 prisoners early release. The process was orderly, avoided immediate homelessness and gave each prisoner a mobile phone to access benefits and services. That wasn’t "going easy" – just a practical way to help the newly released avoid the stress that encourages crime, a return to addiction or self-harm.

Indeed, procurators fiscal could divert suitable offenders away from the whole court process and straight into drug services. Or at least they could if those services existed equally across Scotland. But they don’t.

So, what happened to the brave new world envisioned by the McLeish Report?

Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Jamie Greene points out that before the pandemic, the number of completed work hours in community sentences was at its lowest level for seven years. Is that because the system is failing or under-funded? Audit Scotland observes the Scottish Government spends roughly three times more on the bricks and mortar of jails than community justice.

Mr Greene thinks he has the answer: "The SNP should stop pursuing their failed alternatives to prison and start toughening up the justice system instead."

This is precisely the wrong solution. This expensive, wasteful "get tough" approach does sound convincing but all the data shows prison simply doesn’t stop reoffending. So, if Scotland wants to escape its shameful status as the most punitive part of Europe, government and the judiciary must wholeheartedly back the shift to community justice and tackle the remand crisis. That means challenging the attitudes of sceptical sheriffs – which is not easy.

The judiciary must remain free from political pressure. But it must also reflect Scotland’s changing political consensus.

To quote Karyn McCluskey of Community Justice Scotland: "We must imprison those who make us afraid – not those who make us mad."

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