The Howard League for Penal Reform has a long history of campaigning for the rights of those held in custody and for just responses to the causes and consequences of crime.
Scotland has one of the highest prison populations in Western Europe and our reoffending rates remain stubbornly high. The Scottish Government has accepted that our prisons are full of people many of whom are more troubled than troubling, and they have acknowledged that those held in Scottish prisons are some of the most disadvantaged individuals in our society. Research carried out by former prison governor Roger Houchin in 2005 confirmed that a quarter of all inmates in Scotland’s prisons hailed from just 53 council wards and some of our most deprived communities.
The anomalies that arise for those in prison on short-term sentences are particularly acute. For instance, in 2011-2, over 10% of custodial sentences handed down were for shoplifting. Are we really saying that these individuals shouldn’t have a say in the future of the country they live in? That they shouldn’t have a say in the future of communities they will return to? That they shouldn’t be encouraged to feel part of society rather than continuing to be excluded from it?
As our Parliament debates this issue, the words spoken by late trade union activist Jimmy Reid over four decades ago have lost none of their resonance:
It's the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.
John Scott QC