20th March 2019

By Rebekah Cameron, Student at the University of Glasgow’s School of Law

If you based your understanding of prisoners in Scotland solely on information relayed in the popular media, you would likely come to believe that our 8,000-strong prison population is mostly made up of murderers, sex offenders, and other highly violent evil-doers who pose a grave danger to society. This, of course, does not reflect reality. Scotland has one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe, but the vast majority of those imprisoned never make the news; crimes are overall of a less serious nature than one might suppose, meaning that shorter sentences are the norm. Many offenders end up spending their lives trapped in a ‘revolving door’ – a constant cycle of short sentences and short periods of release.

It is important to consider what our prisons are for, and whether they effectively serve their purpose. A variety of views on the purpose of prisons can be found amongst academics, journalists, criminal justice professionals and members of the public. These include retributive justice – punishment for wrongdoing; expression of societal disapproval of offending behaviour; deterrence; rehabilitation and desistance – ensuring offenders can go on to live a crime-free life; and public order and safety. Most people would probably cite a combination of these considerations, while few would seriously argue that prisons should be solely about punishment, without any effort to reduce criminal behaviours through processes of desistance. We know that around 60% of prisoners released from short-term sentences in Scotland go on to reoffend within one year;[1] clearly, the effects of short-sentences on deterrence, rehabilitation and desistance leave much to be desired.

The Scottish Government seems to have understood this problem: a presumption against sentences of less than three months was legislated for in 2010, and there are plans to extend this presumption to sentences of less than twelve months. This is not a mandatory rule for sentencing judges, but it requires them to give reasons if they choose to impose a short-sentence. These measures aim to reduce reliance on prison for minor crimes, in favour of using community-based sanctions.

Unpaid work community

A day with an unpaid work squad in Edinburgh. Image c/o Community Justice Scotland

However, there is more thinking to be done on broader issues relating to our use of prisons and the impact this has. Retributive justice – punishment for wrongdoing and harming others – is a legitimate aim of the justice system, especially considering the harm suffered by victims of crime. That said, oftentimes, the punishment inflicted by custodial sentences extends far beyond the jail term itself. Many lose their housing while locked up, and securing employment after a prison-stay can be nearly impossible, especially in an economic climate where jobs are scarce for everyone. Furthermore, the daily life of releasees is typically marked by isolation, exclusion and stigma. A custodial sentence can be catastrophic for a person’s life chances – is it right that offenders should continue to suffer for a crime long after they’ve ‘done the time’? From a retributivist perspective, the idea is that a jail term should be proportionate to the crime committed and harm caused, in order that the offender ‘pays the price’ they deserve. Logically, it is disproportionate and unfair for punishment to continue, in a different form, after completion of the sentence.

In addition to considerations about fair punishment, if we are serious about reducing reoffending through encouraging and enabling desistance, the justice system and wider society needs to be doing all it can to create the conditions for desistance to flourish. Can we really expect newly-released offenders to desist from crime when the odds are stacked against them from the second they step outside the prison gates? Steps must be taken to reduce the inevitability of a return to crime. Improved housing support, work programmes for releasees, and provision for the sealing or non-disclosure of criminal records are but a few examples of potential improvements. An interesting possibility is cooperatives, as seen in Italy, where ex-offenders work and live in community with other people. This could be a great innovation for tackling social exclusion, stigma, housing issues and joblessness for releasees. Another idea is introducing a practice of placing ex-prisoners who have desisted in mentoring roles; not only would this provide worthwhile employment where ex-offenders can use their past experiences to help others, it would also provide current prisoners and persisting offenders with role-models and desistance support from those who are best placed to give it.

Fergus McNeill – Professor of Criminology and Social Work at the University of Glasgow – has developed a theory which encapsulates these concerns, and which has clear implications for policy and practice. He highlights four forms of rehabilitation which are required to enable full desistance: personal rehabilitation, which focuses on restoring or changing the offender in some way through addressing current problems and developing skills; judicial rehabilitation, which means the reinstitution of citizenship through formal de-labelling (for example, the sealing of the criminal record); social rehabilitation, which involves the re-development of a social identity, informal de-labelling, and social acceptance and recognition; and moral rehabilitation, which denotes the reparation of relationships and settling of moral debts owed by the offender to the victim/community.[2]

If we are serious about desistance, our approach to prisons, the justice system as a whole, and wider society must be geared towards providing McNeill’s holistic rehabilitation. Unless we tackle the impediments faced by prison-releasees, the chances of escape from the revolving door will continue to be slim, and re-offending rates will persist. Everyone in Scotland, not only academics and criminal justice agencies, must be open to listening to and including prisoner and ex-prisoner voices, and championing the advocacy and reintegration work that is already being done by grassroots ex-prisoner organisations.[3] The presumption against short-sentences is a positive development, but we must acknowledge that more change is needed for those who will nevertheless end up in prison. As well as using prisons less, we must change our approach: minimising disadvantage and creating the conditions for desistance on release should be a key priority, and this needs to be done in partnership with those who have experienced life stuck in the revolving-door.


Rebekah Cameron is studying an MRes in Law at the University of Glasgow, having graduated from the LLB course in 2018. 

[1] BBC News, September 2015. See here – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-34349792

[2] McNeill, F. (2013) ‘Punishment as rehabilitation’ in the Springer Encyclopaedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

[3] For more on this, see Maruna, S. (2017) Desistance as a social movement. Irish Probation Journal, 14: 5-20

Main photo credit: David Hilowitz on VisualHunt.com /CC BY

Additional image from Second Chancers video available on Community Justice Scotland website