3 Jul 2017

Scots mull short jail terms for benefit fraud

Do short jail terms for benefit fraud deter re-offending? Benefit fraudsters may be less likely than other criminals to re-offend in the first place, so what are the recidivist rates for benefit fraudsters who are jailed as opposed to those who aren't? Maybe benefit fraudsters are more susceptible to a 'short sharp shock'.

The SNP is under attack from prison reform campaigners over plans to hand short jail terms to benefit cheats, despite ministers admitting that the punishment does do not work.

A Scottish government consultation revealed overwhelming support among experts for introducing a presumption against sentences that lasted less than a year to keep low-level offenders out of prison.

It followed evidence that brief stints in jail do little to rehabilitate criminals and make it more likely they will commit further crimes after release.

A new social security bill says, however , that welfare fraudsters in less serious cases — and dealt with under summary proceedings in sheriff courts — will face a fine or imprisonment for no longer than 12 months.

The Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland said that it was “disappointing” to see ministers continuing to legislate for short jail sentences despite a commitment to reduce the number of people put behind bars.

Proportionally, Scotland has one of the highest jail populations in Western Europe, locking up more than twice as many people as countries including the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.

Michael Matheson, the justice secretary, has said short stints in prison “simply do not work”, waste public money and risk increasing crime in the long term.

A Howard League spokeswoman added: “Prison should be reserved for the most serious offenders. We have welcomed the Scottish government’s commitment to reducing the use of short prison sentences in favour of community penalties.

“It’s therefore disappointing that this bill contains provision for a punishment under summary justice, for the offence of benefit fraud, of a short prison sentence.”

The new bill has been introduced at Holyrood to pave the way for delivery of sweeping new welfare powers which are being devolved from Westminster.

The Scottish government will become responsible for 11 benefits and gain the ability to “top up” others. The draft law states that in the most serious cases of benefit fraud the maximum punishment will be a jail term of up to five years.

A consultation on extending the presumption against short sentences closed more than 18 months ago. Only 5 per cent disagreed with a proposal to extend it, with 84 per cent backing a one-year threshold.

Courts would be allowed to disregard the guidelines if they felt a short sentence was still appropriate.

Many experts believe that short sentences are not long enough to deliver meaningful rehabilitation. They say the sentences disrupt offenders’ lives, leaving them without benefits or housing upon release, making reoffending more likely once they are let out.

It has been suggested that community sentences produce better results and would help to close a “revolving door” in prisons.

Those against extending the presumption have raised concerns that it could benefit those guilty of domestic violence and send a message that Scotland is soft on crime.

Liam McArthur, justice spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, accused the government of adopting “evasive tactics” that “don’t do justice to anyone.”

He said: “On one hand they say they are working to keep people out of prison on short-term sentences, while on the other hand they press ahead with laws that would do the opposite.”

A spokesman for the Scottish government said it was still discussing the issue of extending the presumption.


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