A justice system so soft it can barely jail criminals is no deterrent. Worse, it betrays victims.
By Graham Grant
IT was no surprise that Curtis Kane brought a bag with him to court when he was due to be sentenced for assault.
The serial thug left his latest victim Craig Johnston so badly brain-damaged that he had to have part of his skull removed.
But when 21-year-old Kane appeared in January, temporary judge John Morris QC had some good news for him – he wasn’t going to jail.
A prison spell ‘wouldn’t do any good’, the judge had decided, so Kane was let off with community service.
In another case two years ago, martial arts expert Steven Forrest was spared jail despite savagely attacking his girlfriend and her disabled mother.
For anyone who believes serious crimes of violence should always lead to jail time, both of these cases – hardly trivial – are horrifying enough.
But yesterday we revealed that Kane and Forrest are far from alone.
In fact, nearly half of violent thugs have been spared jail since the SNP came to power in 2007.
Some 9,050 people convicted of crimes of ‘non-sexual violence’ have avoided prison, out of a total of 20,150 – around 45 per cent.
The proportion of violent thugs who dodged prison in 2015–16 was 54 per cent, compared to 49 per cent in 2007–08.
Some violent thugs are even spared the indignity of a court appearance.
A lawyer once told me of his shock when he learned that a young man who had carried out an axe attack had been let off with a ‘fiscal fine’, a financial penalty imposed by prosecutors which does not lead to a conviction.
For housebreakers between 2007–08 and 2015–16, 6,108 out of a total of 12,382 were spared prison – around 49 per cent.
The ratio is even more striking for sex offenders – more than 70 per cent avoided prison in the last decade.
We can expect the proportion to increase further after Justice Secretary Michael Matheson published a blueprint for the future of the criminal justice system last week.
It paves the way for thousands more offenders to be spared the ‘stigma’ of prison.
The SNP is also considering plans to extend a presumption against short jail terms from three months to a year.
Under these proposals, more cases of sexual assault, attempted murder and serious assault would result in community service.
As we revealed last year, in some cases even child sex offenders are already being let off with Community Payback Orders (CPOs).
Ministers are always keen to point out that the judiciary is separate from the legislature, though sentencing policy is shaped by government.
The SNP set up the Scottish Sentencing Council (SSC) in 2015 to come up with guidelines and to restore public confidence in courts.
Its commitment to transparency was trumpeted as one of its chief virtues – yet the public are barred from attending its meetings.
The SSC’s learned membership – including two judges, two sheriffs, a justice of the peace and a prosecutor – are no doubt highly capable.
But as part of the status quo, perhaps they have an interest in maintaining it, rather than in radical change.
For their part, Mr Matheson and his supporters believe that ‘warehousing’ offenders in prison is retrograde because it doesn’t stop reoffending.
A more ‘progressive’ approach is needed which is humane and aims at helping criminals to prepare for a return to life in the outside world.
Fewer short jail sentences, more electronic tagging and more CPOs are seen as the best substitute for prison, which is also costly and stigmatising.
In response to our disclosures about the scale of soft touch justice under the SNP yesterday, John Scott QC, a member of the SSC, tweeted me: ‘Surely we should use evidence of what works/avoids re-offending(and future victims)? Just locking up usually poor young men [is a] poor substitute.’
Yet one in seven murders is carried out by a criminal who was spared prison in favour of community service.
The number of victims killed by offenders who had been handed soft-touch punishments or let out of jail early has tripled in the past year.
Presumably in the eyes of progressivists, this is just collateral damage.
Nor has Mr Matheson acknowledged the disconnect between SNP strategy and public sentiment, which abhors the emphasis heaped upon the ‘stigma’ faced by criminals while ignoring the plight of victims.
We reveal today that a ‘life sentence’ can now mean less than a decade in jail.
Yet the SNP refuses to countenance ‘whole life’ tariffs, which would lead to the most notorious murderers spending their entire lives behind bars.
If it had any credibility, the SSC would be looking closely at the sham of life sentences – and the gulf between public expectation of tough justice and the bleak reality.
That gulf was revealed in March, when a judge sparked fury after allowing a man who raped a 12-year-old girl to walk free – because he had suffered enough and his victim was an ‘active participant’.
Lady Scott said Daniel Cieslak, 21, had been ‘subject to considerable pressure and distress from the burden of this prosecution’ – and allowed him to go unpunished.
In another bizarre case in December last year, Sheriff John Rafferty showed leniency to Amanda McCabe when she appeared for sentencing for a road rage attack.
McCabe followed her female victim in her car before blocking her in a car park, hauling open the driver’s door and punching her.
After the 47-year-old claimed she had been travelling to a wool shop when the incident happened, the sheriff told McCabe to bring ‘several knitted items’ to court on her sentencing date – when he then admonished her.
Former detective John Carnochan, a leading violence reduction specialist, asked me yesterday if the justice system should be ‘about prevention, deterrence, ideology or just revenge?’
But can the system really be said to be working when murder, rape, robberies and sexual assault are on the rise?
Mr Carnochan agreed that ministers should investigate any possible link between sentencing policy and the increase in serious crime – but hopefully he isn’t holding his breath.
And should we be surprised that jail isn’t as effective as it should be when – with its PlayStations, en suite wet rooms, fly-fishing clubs and state-of-the-art gyms – it provides no meaningful deterrent to prospective criminals?
Yesterday’s commitment to ‘smoke-free’ prisons may well be a little off-putting for some chain-smoking recidivists.
But at least when they do end up in jail in future, they will still be able to take advantage of smuggled mobile phones and illicit drugs.
The unpalatable legacy of the ‘progressive’ approach the SNP and its acolytes have pursued is an increase in society’s most reviled criminals – and an erosion of the rights of those who have suffered at their hands.