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Scotland's Choice Report of The Scottish Prisons Commission




The work done by this Commission over the past nine months has been both detailed and demanding. It has brought us to what we believe is a crossroads where Scotland must choose which future it wants for its criminal justice system.

Our priority has to be keeping the public safe. We must reduce the damage that crime has on victims and communities. This requires us to respond decisively and effectively when confronted by serious, violent crime. It requires us to use the best available evidence to work harder and be smarter in challenging and changing offenders and at tackling the underlying social and cultural factors that so often drive their offending and reoffending. Our current uses of imprisonment are making this extremely difficult. Scotland's prisons hold too many prisoners on short sentences where there is no real expectation of being able to punish, rehabilitate or deter.

If we can step back for just a moment, let us think about what future we want by asking: What might punishment in Scotland look like twenty or thirty years from now?

Here is one possible future:

  • Scotland's prisons have fewer people in them than now; they hold only the most serious offenders, and those who present the greatest threat of harm.
  • Our prisons are regularly included in lists of the top international models of safety and security.
  • Prison staff regularly and expertly deliver the kinds of programmes that are most effective at producing change and accountability.
  • There is a widely used and well-respected system of community-based sentences, the effectiveness of which is demonstrated by low reconviction rates.
  • Communities possess high levels of hope and pride from smart investment in services that are both needed and desired locally.
  • Scotland plays regular host to visitors from around the world who want to learn from our achievements.

There is another possible future, one to which our current path leads. In this future, there are many more prisons and yet they are just as overcrowded as the prisons of today. Dedicated and skilled professionals lack support and suffer from low morale, spending most of their time doing crisis management and buried in paperwork. The public's distrust of the criminal justice system reaches record levels. The most fragile communities are ignored and further weakened, ensuring the next generation will find its way into the criminal justice system and keep this cycle running.

We have to make a choice between these two futures. A negative future is not inevitable and a positive one is not unattainable. Both are possible. One requires us to do nothing at all; the other will require us to think differently about what we want punishment to do and to make some changes in how we go about achieving this.

In this report we document the path we are currently taking and propose a set of solutions aimed at moving us onto the path we should take. If this is to work, all of us - politicians, the judiciary, the media, professionals, communities, families and individuals - have to embrace the opportunity to change.

Photo of Rt. Hon. Henry McLeish, Chair

Rt. Hon. Henry McLeish, Chair