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Justice 1 Committee


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SP Paper 537

Session 1 (2002)


5.5 Who should be sent to prison?

It is important to understand then that, despite the rhetoric of prison being too `soft' and sentences being too short, most people have some reservations about the effectiveness (and cost effectiveness) of imprisonment - particularly for certain types of offender. As a result, people's views often contain apparent tensions or contradictions. In one of the focus groups, for example, a woman commented favourably on an American prison regime she had seen on television, which involved inmates living in tents in the desert and undertaking hard manual labour. Later in the same discussion, however, she argued passionately that the courts need to understand why people are driven to commit crime and sentence them accordingly, not simply send them to prison. When it was argued that she had moved from a hard-line law-and-order stance to a classic liberal position, she explained the apparent tension as follows: while she thought fewer people should be sent to prison, those who are should be treated more severely.

This is a position which found favour with many of those who took part in the focus groups. While there was consensus that certain types of offenders should almost always be imprisoned - for example, murderers, rapists, paedophiles, serious violent offenders and drug (and especially heroin) dealers - there was also widespread scepticism about the value of imprisoning people for minor acquisitive crime and for fine default.

*They have used violence and if it is in their head they must be put away. They can't get a fine if they have inflicted damage on another human being, that is wrong.

(Females,45-59, ABC1, East Kilbride)

*I got lifted on the Friday and they were going to keep me in the cells all weekend. I had a £100 fine for my television licence. How much would that have cost the tax payer, keeping me in all weekend? [...] It seems crazy to punish somebody because they don't have enough money. Nine times out of ten most people will pay what they can but you've got to prioritise. You probably thought, 'I can feed the kids and be warm or I can pay the TV licence, I think I'll feed the kids and be warm.' There are people in that situation.

(Females, 30-44, C2DE, Aberdeen)

*Drug dealers. If you get them away then you get the crime rate down.

*There are people who have not paid their poll tax in amongst murderers, it is unreal. They are in with serious criminals, where do you draw the line, what is serious and what is not. I think drug dealers are the worst criminal in our society today. The whole drugs culture, not just Glasgow, the whole country is affected by the drug dealers. The sentence should suit the crime, if you are a murderer then you should be locked up for life, you took a life you should get life.

(Males, 60+, C2DE, Glasgow)

The suggestion that the public makes relatively fine-grained judgements about the types of crime which should merit a prison sentence finds further support in the results of the survey, in which respondents were asked to indicate how often they thought a range of different types of offender should - receive a prison sentence. While there was strong support for rapists and those convicted of assault and robbery always being sent to prison there was significantly less support for the use of imprisonment for fine defaulters and those convicted of possessing cannabis for personal use. This would seem to suggest that while prison is seen as necessary in more serious cases involving violence and, in particular, sexual violence, the public accept a need for flexibility in certain other types of cases

Table 5-2: How often different types of offenders should be sent to prison (%)




Some times


It depends

Don't know








Assault and robbery (i.e. mugging)














Car theft







Dealing cannabis







Non-payment of fines







Possession of cannabis for personal use







Base: All respondent (n=720)

Note: Table presents row percentages

In every case, respondents in the lower socio-economic groups were more likely to believe that offenders should be sent to prison. The difference was greatest in relation to dealing cannabis, where 54% of those in socio-economic group DE thought people should 'always' go to prison, compared with only 29% of those in socio-economic group AB.

The same was true of those in the older age groups, who were more likely to believe that offenders should be sent to prison in each case. Again, the difference was greatest in relation to dealing cannabis, where 61% of those aged 60 and over thought offenders should always go to prison, compared with 28% of those aged between 16 and 29.

In terms of the use currently made of prison, half of respondents (49%) thought that too little use was currently made of prison, a quarter (25%) thought that the use of prison was about right and 17% thought that too much use was made of prison. As noted above, it is, however, important to bear in mind the opinions people hold about who it is that should actually be sent to prison and this should not be read as blanket approval for greater use of prison for all offenders.

Figure 5-3: Current use of prison in Scotland (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

When asked about the use of prison now, compared with five years ago, overall, half (50%) of respondents thought that someone appearing before the courts now would be less likely to be sent to prison than five years ago, 13% that they would be more likely to be sent to prison and the remaining 30% thought that there was probably no difference.

5.6 Community penalties

5.6.1 Community service

Contrasting views were expressed in relation to community service. Some regarded community service orders (as currently operated) with a significant degree of scepticism, believing them to be a `soft option' and poorly enforced. However, there was a high level of support for the principle of community service for certain types of offenders and in certain circumstances. Seen as a way of `making the punishment fit the crime' and of making the connection - both for the offender and the broader community - between the offence committed and how it can be 'made good'. In this context, there was demand for community service to be visible, to be carried out in the community in which the crime was committed. It was striking that focus group participants used the criminological language of `shaming' and reintegration, suggesting that such an approach has its roots in people's sense of natural justice and their own experiences of dealing successfully with wrongdoings of various kinds.

* I go over to New York quite a lot and I don't know why I am airing it but they put the community service offenders in uniforms and they make them do work on the streets, in the area that they live wearing the uniform so that everybody knows. That way the people that you are living amongst know the kind of person you are. I think that is a good thing.

(Males, 60+, C2DE, Glasgow)

*Why don't they do what they do in America, make them work for nothing, make them dig roads or whatever. If you go over to America, they don't even get dole money, they just have to get on with it. This would bring them to their senses. We are the fools paying for them to be in prison.


*No, I mean make them work for the community that they have offended against. Make them help the people that they have hurt.

(Females, 45-59, ABC1, East Kilbride)

*It would be a bigger deterrent if they had to wear a label while they were doing the job. A bright orange pair of overalls or something.

(Males, 18-29, ABC1, Edinburgh)

Support for community service was also contingent on it being both properly resourced and, importantly, enforced. In relation to this latter point, there was some feeling that community penalties could be breached without there being any significant chance of a further penalty. In addition, a handful of participants expressed concern about the implications for public safety of putting offenders to work in the community.

*I don't like community service, they can put them into old people's homes, nurseries, they can put them into schools and they can put them into places where people can't really help themselves.

(Females, 45-59, ABC1, East Kilbride)

*I agree it would be a big deterrent but you have then got the public to worry about as well. For instance if they were working in Princes Street Gardens, you then have parents who are going to be worried about the child, you are going to have people worried about that. I am not saying I would be worried, I wouldn't be at all.

(Males, 18-29, ABC1, Edinburgh)

In terms of the use people actually thought was currently made of Community Service Orders, a third (34%) thought that too little use was currently made of them and 23% that about the right amount of use was made of them, while 27% thought that too much use was made of Community Service Orders.

Figure 5-4: Current use of Community Service Orders in Scotland (%)

Base: All respondents (n=720)

5.6.2 Financial penalties

In general, there was little enthusiasm for the use of fines, as they were not seen as a genuine form of punishment.

*About fining? I just think it's such a useless piece of punishment. They either steal it or get it from a relative. The last thing they do is do without to pay it back. It is not a punishment.

(Females, 60+, ABC1, Aberdeen)

This was especially true when payment terms can be set at a level meaning that someone will only be paying the fine off at the rate of a couple of pounds per week.

*Because they can't pay it so therefore it is not hurting them. If they get a fine and go to the court and say, 'I can only pay it at £5 per week or £5 per month' - that isn't hurting.

*It is not any kind of punishment. If one of us was taken to court and fined £1,000 we would be expected to pay it. We would be punished. But Joe Bloggs who stays round the corner who is unemployed and lives on benefits would be expected to pay it at £1 per week. They are not being punished.

(Females, 30-44, ABC1, Edinburgh)

*They are still not worried about this fine because if they can't pay it, they say, 'Can we pay it up?' Before you know where you are - £5 a week. And they're laughing all the way

(Males, 45-59, C2DE, Aberdeen)

In addition, problems of fine enforcement were thought to lead to a greater burden on the criminal justice system in dealing with what was most probably began as a relatively minor offence.

* That's another thing with fines. Fines are the sort of thing 'I can't pay that' and they say 'Oh well we'll give you so long to pay it'.

*£2.50 a week!

*And they pay so many instalments and then they think 'I'm not doing that.'

*It ends up in the main courts which ends up in tax payer's money getting used again for the likes of telling them to either pay it or up the money. They never throw them in to jail for non payment of fines.

(Females, 30-44, C2DE, Aberdeen)

*Because these people pay a fine and walk away. It is not a huge deterrent depending on how much you earn and things like that. I don't think it is always means tested. Rather than us paying for the court costs and everything like that, and then passing over a £50 or £100 fine, it has cost us the tax payer a lot of money to take them to court, police time, judges time, lawyer's time, the majority of them are probably getting Legal Aid, why don't we get them to put something back to the tax payer for taking them to court? Make them go out and work. The Councils are always screaming they don't have enough employees to do menial tasks. Especially if they are unemployed because not only are they getting a small fine, and paying it back pennies a week off their Giro, we are actually paying the Giro.

(Males, 18-29, ABC1, Edinburgh)

Others thought that fines were counter-productive in that they were paid using the money gained from other criminal activity and that, indeed, the burden of paying a fine might even drive someone further down a criminal path.

*But they just go out and steal more money or steal something else to sell to pay for the fine. It is self defeating.

(Females, 60+, ABC1, Aberdeen)

5.6.3 Mediation

Support for the use of mediation was explored in the survey in relation to Ronnie's case (see page 41), where opinions were relatively evenly divided as to whether or not it would be a good idea (39% saying they thought it would be a good idea and 43% saying they did not think it would be a good idea). There was a higher level of support among those in the higher socio-economic groups.

Those who believed mediation would be a good idea in Ronnie's case tended to think this was because it would make him think about and, hopefully, regret what he had done, might help to change his attitudes and behaviour and would be beneficial for the victim. Those believing mediation would not be a good idea in this case tended to think that this would have no effect on Ronnie and would, therefore, be a waste of time, as well as potentially upsetting for the victim.

Table 5-3: Why mediation would/would not be a good idea in Ronnie's case(%)

Why good idea


Why not a good idea


Make offender think about/ regret what he's done


Would have no effect on him


Help change offenders' attitudes/behaviour


Waste of time/effort


Would be beneficial for the victim


Not first offence


Should have to face the victim/explain himself


Upsetting/intimidating for victim


Other reason


Victim wouldn't gain anything




Other reason


Base: All respondents believing mediation would/would not be a goods idea in Ronnie's case (n=281/310)

These views were echoed in the focus groups, where the idea of `bringing it home' to the offender that they had caused harm and upset to a real person was thought to have the potential to reduce re-offending, although only in relation to more minor offences. Some of those who had been victims of crime also felt they would have welcomed the opportunity to explain how the crime had affected them.

*If he was sorry for doing it, then he would see, face-to-face how you felt about him breaking in to your house or damaging your car. You could explain to him - if he wants things like this he goes out and works for it. You don't just take somebody else's because it's there. You might get somebody ... but it depends how they feel. If they're genuinely sorry and you say, 'OK I'll forgive you this time, don't do it again' ...

*It might bring it home to some people.

*You should get the human in to them they say. 'Imagine if somebody did it to you.'

(Females, 30-44, C2DE, Aberdeen)

*I would have liked to have had a meeting and get it off my chest. You talk to them. You don't lose your head at them. That makes you as bad as they are. If you then say 'you have put me to a lot of trouble, I have got an old aunt lying in there ill and the wind has been blowing' and the poor kid will say 'my god I didn't think I had done all that, I only broke a window'. If you explain why you are angry the child might learn something as well.

(Mixed group, 60+, C2DE, Edinburgh)

There was, however, concern about personal safety, with some people expressing anxiety about the prospect of being brought face-to-face with `their' offender - either because of fear about their own safety or because they felt they might themselves react violently.

*I think I would be quite worried about actually coming face-to-face with these people. There is something about putting a face to somebody as well. [...] In a way, you feel it is not a personal thing, whereas when you actually come face-to-face with them, you think there is much more at stake.

(Females, 30-44, ABC1, Edinburgh)

5.6.4 Reparation

There was a very high level of support for the principle of reparation, with 81% thinking this would be a good idea for particular types of crimes or offences. As one might expect, reparation was thought most appropriate for cases involving vandalism or some other form of criminal damage that the offender could rectify. As we saw above in relation to thinking about Community Service Orders, the attraction of this was that it allowed the chance for a strong and direct link between the crime and the punishment and the offender could `make good' the damage caused by their own crime.

*Vandalism. I think, kids who do that, they should be made to fix whatever they've vandalised.

(Females, 30-44, C2DE, Aberdeen)

*It depends on the person. Some people would commit crimes, say for instance against an old person, they might steal their handbag, these people don't have a conscience. By making them pay back the money they stole from that old person and maybe going round and maintain their house or clean her windows for a month, that is making that person pay. It is having a positive affect as well. They are using their time in a way they don't want it used.

(Females, 30-44, ABC1, Edinburgh)

The main objections to emerge from the focus groups related to the fact that this could be seen as a `soft option' and the victim might, in certain circumstances, be tempted to take reprisals.

*INTERVIEWER: Those of you who have been broken in to. How would you have felt if the police had said 'would you be interested in having a meeting with them'?

*I don't know about that because I was so angry. I would be thinking to myself I would maybe belt them one!

(Mixed group, 60+, C2DE, Edinburgh)

5.7 Cost effectiveness issues

As part of the survey, respondents were asked to estimate how much they thought it costs to keep an offender in prison for 12 months and how much an equivalent community service order would cost. Respondents tended to under-estimate how much it costs to keep an offender in prison for 12 months, on average, believing this would cost about £20,650. The true figure stands at roughly £27,000. By contrast, respondents tended to over-estimate how much an equivalent community sentence would cost - the average response being £7,300, compared to the true figure of about £3,000. Indeed, a quarter (26%) of respondents thought an equivalent community service order would cost £10,000 or more.

The issue of the cost of different disposals was also discussed in the focus groups. Two main themes emerged in response to information about the actual cost of imprisonment and community service. The first was that prison regimes should be made more basic and that costs should be reduced by providing only a bare minimum of facilities. The second was that there should be a move towards greater use of community penalties - at least for minor offenders - on the grounds that, first, prison achieves little and, secondly, that it costs a great deal more than comparable disposals.

*£27,000 and you are getting nothing but for £3,000 you are actually doing something and putting something back into the community, to the people who are the victims of these crimes.

(Males, 18-29, ABC1, Edinburgh)

5.8 Key points

This chapter has examined public knowledge and views of prison and has explored, in particular, perceptions of its effectiveness and appropriateness for offenders of different kinds. It has also considered public attitudes towards a number of community disposals.

· Most people say they know relatively little about Scotland's prisons, with views tending to be based more on media and fictional representations than on direct experience.

· There is a widespread perception that life in prison is `too soft'. There is also evidence, however, that many people have doubts about the effectiveness of prison in preventing reoffending and about its appropriateness for less serious offenders.

· There is particular concern about the effectiveness of imprisonment for drug-related offenders, since the lack of appropriate services and widespread availability of drugs within prison are seen as exacerbating the problem.

· Although many people are sceptical about the way that community service orders currently operate, there is relatively widespread support for the principle of the disposal - especially if it can be implemented in a way that is visible, makes a connection between the punishment and the community in which the crime was committed and can be properly resourced and enforced.

· There is some support for reparation and, to a lesser extent, mediation schemes although these should not operate as a soft option or escape route from other forms of punishment and should only be offered in suitable (and probably more minor) cases.

· There is a widespread view that prison costs too much and that savings should be made, either by cutting back the facilities available to inmates or by diverting offenders into more constructive, community-based disposals.

6 Conclusions

During one of the focus groups, a woman offered the view that the courts were `too lenient'. When asked why she thought that, she responded, `I don't know. It's just what you hear people say.' Certainly anyone attending the group discussions for this project would have heard many people say precisely that. But they would also have heard, as the discussions progressed, a range of more complex, sometimes contradictory, but always varied views. Given the intractability of many of the issues under discussion - and the fact that academics, politicians, practitioners and policy-makers are themselves unable to agree about what sentencing can or should achieve - perhaps this should not be too surprising. And yet, until recently, we have tended to see the public as speaking with a single and consistent voice on this most difficult of policy issues.

The aim of this study has been - within a specifically Scottish context - to move beyond such characterisations by unravelling and exploring views on sentencing and imprisonment and identifying potential points of constructive engagement with public opinion. Its main conclusions are as follows:

1. Although members of the public tend to be very interested in issues of crime and justice (by their own admission) they often know relatively little about them.

2. Public attitudes towards sentencing and the use of imprisonment should not be divorced from broader views of the nature and extent of the `crime problem' and, in particular, from the fact that crime is widely seen to be increasing, to be increasingly random and violent in character and to be closely linked to drug misuse.

3. In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that there is some evidence of a crisis of confidence in the criminal justice system, with the courts seen as overly lenient and judges and out-of-touch. There is particular criticism of current sentencing practice for being inconsistent and of the perceived lack of `truth in sentencing' - members of the public simply do not understand why somebody sentenced to 12 months ends up serving less. There is also a widespread view that the workings of the courts in general favour the interests of the accused over those of victims of crime.

4. Public views on appropriate sentencing are, however, varied and complex. When asked to consider the details of specific cases, members of the public generally opt for disposals which are broadly in line with those that would be imposed by the courts.

5. Moreover, there is both greater support for some community penalties and greater scepticism about prison that might usually be supposed. Prison is widely seen as necessary for certain categories of offenders but ineffective and even counter-productive for many others and as providing poor value for money.

6. Some community penalties, such as community service orders, drug treatment and testing orders, and reparation and mediation command relatively widespread support if used in specific ways. Public support for community service orders, for example, appears to be dependent on such disposals being visible, enforceable and directly connected to the community in which the offence was committed.

Where does this leave us in terms of policy development within the criminal justice system in Scotland? One of the difficulties of concluding that public attitudes in this area are more complex and contradictory than they first appear is that it is not possible simply to `read off' clear and unambiguous policy conclusions. The study does, however, provide a number of pointers.

First, it is clear that there is a pressing need to restore public confidence in the courts and the judiciary. This might be done by providing better information to the public about the work of the courts - for example, by using modern communication media to show that most `serious' offenders are, in fact, given lengthy prison sentences - or by looking at ways of improving perceptions of consistency and fairness in sentencing. There might also be value in finding ways of presenting the judiciary in a positive light - for example, by publicising further improvements to the recruitment, training and professional development of judges and sheriffs.

Secondly, on a related point, it is apparent that public views of appropriate sentencing policy are underpinned by important misconceptions about the nature and extent of crime in Scotland - and this issue, too, might be a useful focus for public information campaigns. That said, it needs to be recognised that the public will not easily be educated `out of' such anxieties, since they may speak to a broader unease about the pace and direction of social change.

Thirdly, the research suggests that, despite initial calls for harsher sentencing, constructive alternatives to imprisonment can be `sold' to the public - at least in relation to particular types of offences and with certain conditions and caveats. Indeed, in everyday discussion about the experience and impact of crime, members of the public draw on many of the same concepts, such as reparation and shaming, that underpin such disposals. Moreover, there seems to be widespread of acceptance of the need to treat drug offenders differently. It seems likely, therefore, that the public would largely support an expansion of the use of Drug Treatment and Testing Orders and dedicated drug courts.

More generally, there may be a need to address public expectations of what sentencing and punishment can achieve. As there is little evidence in Scotland (or elsewhere) that sentencing policy is capable of playing a fundamental role in terms of controlling crime, it might be better to emphasise those aims of sentencing that are achievable and which the research suggests meet with a reasonable level of support from the public - namely, protecting the public from dangerous predatory offenders; ensuring that offenders receive a just punishment no matter where they are sentenced or by whom; and providing cost-effective programmes to support those offenders who wish to get out of the spiral of offending.

Appendix A: Topic guide for focus groups

This guide provides an indication of the issues explored and provided a framework, rather than a rigid protocol, for the discussions.

It was explained at the outset that the research was being undertaken on behalf of the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament. The alternative was to tell people at the end, but in this case it was judged likely that participants would start trying to second-guess the funder, which might prove distracting.

Warm up and introductions

· Moderator introduction

· Explanation of background to the research

· Group `rules' and process

· Ice-breaker exercise in which participants pair up, find out each other's names and some background information and then introduce each other to the rest of the group

Existing knowledge and attitudes

This section used a series of questions/facts (and visual aids) to provoke discussion about current knowledge and attitudes.

· What do you think are the most common types of crime? What proportion of crime do you think involves violence?

· What do you think is happening to crime in Scotland? Do you think it is rising or falling? Do you think crime is better or worse than 10 years ago? Where do you find out about issues like that?

· [Show list of most common types of sentences that people receive] What proportion of offenders do you think receive each of these types of sentence?

· In general, how do you feel about the way that the Scottish courts currently deal with offenders? Are the courts too lenient, too severe or do they get things about right?

Use of scenarios

This section used two specific offence/offender scenarios to focus discussion about perceptions of the aims of sentencing and appropriate disposals for specific types of cases.

Scenario 1

An 18 year-old, John, looking for money to pay for his taxi fare home, attempted to climb through a bathroom window of a house in the early hours of the morning. He was spotted by the householder and detained without a struggle. No property was taken. He had no previous convictions.

Scenario 2

A 19 year-old, Ronnie, plead guilty to assault and robbery. Ronnie had grabbed a 21 year-old man who was walking home at midnight, forced him against a wall, punched him on the head and demanded his wallet. The victim handed over his wallet and Ronnie ran away. The wallet contained £50 cash, which was not recovered. Ronnie has several previous convictions for breach of the peace and assault.

In relation to each scenario, the following issues were addressed:

· What should the most important aims of sentencing be in each case - e.g. simply punish the offender, make it physically difficult for them to re-offend, change their behaviour or attitudes, scare them so that they won't do it again, deter other people from committing the same type of crime, make amends to the victim, express society's disapproval.

· What type of sentence do you feel the offender should receive in this case? Why? How does that relate to what you felt the aims of sentencing should be? [Any discrepancies to be explored.]

· What might change your view of the kind of sentence that is appropriate in each case (e.g. information about previous convictions, drug habit, domestic situation, etc.)?

· What type of sentence do you think the offender actually would receive? Would that achieve what you felt sentencing should in relation to this case?

· Feed back information about the actual sentence imposed in each case and explore responses and reactions to any difference.

Imprisonment and alternatives to imprisonment

Extent and source of knowledge about prison

· How much do you feel you know about prisons in Scotland? Where have you learned that from? [Explore role of education, media, personal experience, friends and family, etc.]

· How many do you think there are? How many people do you think are in them at any one time? What do you think the average sentence length is?

General perceptions of prison and its effectiveness

· What do you think prison is like? What kinds of opportunities/facilities do you think prisoners in Scotland get?

· What do you think are the good things about prison - from the point of view of the offender and society as a whole? What do you think are the bad things about it?

· What kind of offenders/offences do you think prison is best suited to and why? What kind of offenders/offences do you think prison is not suited to? How does this differ from the types of offences and offenders best suited to prison?

Awareness of and attitudes towards alternatives to imprisonment

What alternatives to imprisonment had you heard about before today? How do you feel about their use and effectiveness?

· Even if you support the use of alternatives to imprisonment, is there anything about them that makes you uncomfortable or concerned?

· Even if you oppose the use of alternatives to imprisonment, is there anything about them that appeals to you?

· What types of offences/offenders do you think different types of alternative sentences are best suited to?

· Thinking back to what you feel the most important aims of sentencing should be, can you see any ways in which that could be achieved through the use of alternatives to imprisonment? Are there any which you feel can't be achieved through non-custodial sentences? Why is that?

Cost and cost-effectiveness issues

· How much do you think it costs to keep an offender in prison for a year? And how much do you think an alternative, non-custodial sentence would cost? [Show actual figures and probe for reactions.]

· Which do you think would be most effective in preventing re-offending? [Show research comparisons and probe for reactions.]

· Are there any other costs/benefits of imprisonment or its alternatives that we should take into account?

· Summary

· What, if anything, have you learned about crime, criminal justice and sentencing that you did not already know?

· How, if at all, has that affected the way that you think about the issue?

· What do you think would be the best way of providing people with more information about these issues?

· How (else) do you think confidence in the courts and the criminal justice system could be increased?

Thank and close


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