7th August 2018

By James
SCCJR Intern

On Friday 29th June the Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research (SCCJR) hosted an event to mark the 10th anniversary of the McLeish Commission, who published the report, Scotland’s Choice: The Report of the Scottish Prisons CommissionThe report contained 23 recommendations covering a range of criminal justice issues from community sentences to young people in the justice system, and the purposes of punishment to decisions about parole and release.  It also set out a target to reduce the prison population from a running total of approximately 8,000 to 5,000, a drop of nearly 38% which was a level of reduction never seen before in prison populations.

This conference provided an opportunity to reflect on the changes made in the decade since the report was launched with most of the findings being accepted by the Scottish Government.  This conference allowed an opportunity to consider how the Commission’s work informed and shaped the direction of justice in Scotland.

Scotland’s high imprisonment rate has long been a concern of research and policymakers and was a primary factor in setting up the Commission in 2007.  Prior to setting out its recommendations it took stock of how punishment was used in Scotland finding;

  • High imprisonment under low crime conditions
  • Use of imprisonment for the troubled rather than the troubling
  • Use of imprisonment for very short periods
  • Prisoners pulled back into the system through parole recall and criminal histories
  • Imperviousness of prison population to crime trends
  • Poor public awareness of crime and punishment trends
  • Poor public awareness of the kinds and effects of different sentences

When considering Gender and Justice, the average number of women in prison is functionally the same in 2016-17 (366) as it was ten years ago (372).  The proportion of women held in prison on remand has not changed since 2008, with nearly one third of women in prison held on remand in 2013-14 (last official statistics available).

The conference was organised by SCCJR’s Communications Officer, Rachelle Cobain, and hosted by Director, Sarah Armstrong who was also an academic advisor to the Scottish Prisons Commission.  Sarah introduced Henry McLeish (Chair of the Commission) who discussed the original thinking behind the Commission, explaining why these complex issues need addressed and suggested a more radical solution should be sought, as the “more things change the more they stay the same”.

The first presentation from academics Susan McVie and Ben Mathews (University of Edinburgh) discussed the link between social exclusion and imprisonment in Scotland, highlighting the fact that despite crime having fallen since 2008 (in absolute terms), of those convicted, more people are being imprisoned. Their research shows that Scottish prison draw most of its population from the most deprived communities in Scotland.

This linked into the next presentation from Bruce Western, Professor of Sociology and co-director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University, who gave an International Perspective of Punishment & Inequality. Bruce’s research examines trends in American economic inequality and the growth of the United States’ penal population.  He discussed ‘mass incarceration’ in the U.S. where 2.3 million people are currently incarcerated in the U.S with 7 million under some kind of correctional supervision (prison, parole, probation etc.), however, incarceration rates are unequally distributed across the population.  This is highlighted by the startling fact that around 70% of all black male high school dropouts in the US will experience prison at some point in their lives (data from 2009).

His re-entry study, where data was collected over three years as a longitudinal study of 122 men and women, showed exposure to violence and other trauma in childhood leads to poor physical and mental health in adulthood, and was associated with poverty and material hardship after prison.  Bruce described the three main characteristics of criminal justice in the U.S. as poverty, race and violence.

Next there was a Q&A session discussing the best way forward, where it was argued that ‘humanizing’ those who have committed crime as being the best way to change policy.  This makes sense, as a lot of mainstream media in our country tends to sensationalise crime, and whilst crimes are deeply traumatizing for victims a progressive country has to find ways to deal with the consequences of crime if we cannot prevent it in a humane manner.  In addition, many of those who have committed crime have experienced trauma themselves as the research and speakers bore out.  Maybe taking this into consideration when sentencing people convicted of a crime would be a good start.

SPS Chief Executive Colin McConnell’s claim that prison offers ‘care’ to those imprisoned and ‘can contribute to social justice’, was countered by fellow panelists from the Scottish Prison Advocacy and Research Collective (SPARC) who described prison as primarily causing hurt.  Louise Branagan, an expert on Irish prison policy described how penal authorities in Ireland worked from the premise that rehabilitation was best achieved by getting prisoners out as early as and as often as possible from institutions.

Henry McLeish in one of the final sessions was asked if he believed reducing the total prison population to nearer 5,000 was a realistic target to have set.  While he admitted it may have been overly optimistic he believes that such a number may be possible in the future, arguing that it is the best way forward for individuals involved with the justice system and society as a whole it’s about ‘changing attitudes’.

The event was closed by Scottish Government’s Director of Justice Neil Rennick and Sarah Armstrong, thanking all of the speakers and also the contributions of those who attended. They finished by posing the question of how justice would look in Scotland in another 10 years and would the original targets be met?  Overall, the event went well, was thought provoking and all of the speakers were well informed and persuasive; personally, it was a pleasure to attend.