While Ken Clark was pledging to break with the tradition 'prison works' philosophy and bring in more community sentences in England yesterday, the Scottish Parliament was also debating reform to our justice system.
Labour and the tories have long aggravated for the a mandatory six month sentence for those convicted of carrying a knife but the majority of MSPs disagreed and in the final vote on the Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill, MSPs rejected the plan by 64 votes to 61.
Also short prison sentences of three months or less have been scrapped, (unless in special cases), in a bid to cut down on reoffending as part of the most wide-ranging justice reforms ever passed in the Scottish Parliament.
The age at which children can be prosecuted in an adult court was raised from 8 to 12, however eight-year-olds can still receive a criminal record through the Children's Hearing System.
The Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill originally proposed scrapping sentences of six months or less but this was reduced to 3 months in order to get the LibDems and Greens onside although I can't understand why they refused to support the 6 month proposal. The Scottish government want a presumption to impose Community Payback Orders such as clearing rubbish, cleaning graffiti, gardening for the elderly instead of short sentences. It believes prison can be a college of crime for minor criminals who then graduate to more serious offending under the tuition of fellow prisoners.
All very plausible and I agree with the premise that very short sentences can do an offender more harm than good but, if we are to use community service as a punishment, there needs to be a new approach to it. Community service in this country has always been regarded as the 'soft option' and run badly. What is now needed is a community service organisation operated by ex-military or ex-police officers - people who understand the meaning of the word discipline and self satisfaction because the majority of offenders receiving short sentences are young. Our educators need to be in on the act too because many petty offenders are poorly educated in the basics skills of reading, writing and maths. Having three months or less to introduce an offender to the work ethic and the understanding that education is the way to paid employment will not be easy, but we need to try. We have a responsibility to young people who have lost their way or have yet to find it.