New schemes keep convicts out ofjail

The Government‘s ’tough on crime‘ stance is putting increasing numbers of criminals behind bars. but two new schemes in Lothian are looking at alternatives to prison. Stephen Naysmith reports.

While government ministers continue to make aggressive noises about tougher sentencing and harsher prison regimes. moves to relieve pressure on the prison system continue in Scotland.

Home secretary Michael Iloward restated his aim this month to increase trse of mandatory life sentences. extend minimum sentencing and reduce remission. ‘I’eople find it very diffictrlt to understand that when a court passes a sentence of four years imprisonment. the prisoner is released after two.‘ he said. "There is a widespread desire for Ironcst in sentencing so that. subject to some remission. people should serve the sentence passed by the court.’

However the plans have met with opposition froru judges and Law Lords. anxious that their powers of discretion will he removed and prisons will become tnore overcrowded. In Iidinburgh. several schemes have been set up to offer alternatives to cttstody and give sheriffs sentencing criminals a wider range of options. The schemes have grown out of a philosophy that prison rarely works in changing criminal behaviour and a belief that economic disadvantage and crime are linked -- a claim frequently denied by the Government.

Charlie McMillan. project manager of the Intensive Probation Project in I.othian. was taken aback at the lack of hope among those referred to him when the service opened last year. ‘In Iidinhurgh we have cotne across a lot of drug offenders whose parents have been drug-users before them.’ he said. ‘Some are affected by HIV or .-\ids. and don't have a sense of the ftrturc. It is the politics of despair. If people have very low self-esteem they don‘t feel that they matter to themselves. so how do you give them the idea that “society” matters."

The project. run by National (‘hildren's Ilotncs on behalf of Lothian Region‘s social work department. works with young offenders on probation. Courts can choose to send Io-zt year olds to the project rather than send them to prison. Unlike many scherrrcs

offering alternatives to custody. this one is aimed at more serious offenders including those convicted of assault and drug~related crime.

"The aim is to pt‘oy ide a credible alternative to custody.‘ McMillan said. ‘lt is important that young people accept responsibility for what they have done. btrt beating them over the head with it. telling them they are evil won't stop it happening again. This is not a soft option. Some people may be suspicious of trs and think it lets the victim down unless a criminal goes to prison. The victim only benefits if the offending stops.‘

Another I.othian initiative called the Supervised Attendance Order was launched this month to tackle a major area of concern in penal policy —— the high level of imprisonment for fine default. Many of those jailed for failing to pay fines simply can‘t afford to pay.

"There is a lot of concern about the nutnber of defaulters going to prison.‘ said project manager Ian Stewart. ‘It is an expensive way of dealing with them. socially disruptive to the individual concerned and goes against what the courts intended. They fine someone not with the intention that they end up in prison htrt that they pay the fine.‘

Before the Iatrnch of this project. sheriffs had few

options for dealing with failure to pay lines. They could scrub the line. which many felt sent otrt the wrong message. vary instalments or put people in prison.

Iiarlicr this month Michael Howard announced that magistrates in England will soon he issued guidance for ending the use of prisons for fine defaulters. ‘Mr Howard seems only just to have woken tip to this south of the horder.‘ Stewart added wrny.

When defaulters are sent to the I..othian project. they receive ‘a fine on their time‘ instead. he points otrt. This will inchrde attending classes on money management to assist with budgeting. advice on health and benefits. and look at preparing for employment.

‘Many hay e difficulty because they are on benefit or low income.’ said Stewart. ‘Ifthey express an interest in a trade such as joinery or computing we would attempt to find a training placement for them.‘

This highlights the fact that it may not always be within the power of projects like these to help people change. Iiconomic circumstances are crucial. r‘ylcz‘yiillan concedes: "There are no easy answers. The issues are huge and there is no point thinking after six months working with its they will have a two-bedroom semi and a full-time job. But the aim is to rcdtrce offending behaviour. if not stop it altogether.‘

Young offenders: ‘how do you give them the idea that society matters?‘

And finally. . . film stars shine while English MP pipes up

It's been a week of heavenly bodies. A rare sighting of a ‘nacrcous‘ or mother-of-pcarl cloud over Iidinburgh had newspaper reporters reaching for their bluffcr's guide to meteorology to explain a phenomenon which involved the troposphere. ice crystals and refracted light. ‘lt's very similar to a chandelier. with glass crystals that refract the light.‘ said a Royal Observatory expert helpfully. This bizarre celestial lightshow was last seen without the use of controlled substances at any rate ~ in I974.

A couple of days previously there had been multiple reports of UFO activity over central Scotland. with motorists on the M‘) reporting a ‘ball of fire' shooting across the early evening sky. Another case for Mulder and Scully in The X l’r'les‘.’ Sadly not. said an astronomer who had tracked the heavenly body‘s progress through

Justine Elastica: Britpop’s First Lady

the night sky. In fact it was only a meteorite. little larger than a football. And then the stars really came out. this time for the premiere of the much- hyped (yes. trs included) movie ’li'urnspollrng which was shown

simultaneotrsly in Glasgow and [Edinburgh in aid of rehab charity (‘alton Athletic. Michael ‘Smilcs Better" Kelly crowed in his new column in The Scotsman that it was the west coast screening which attracted the real celebs proving. in an impressive leap of logic. that Glasgow rntrst be the trndisptrtcd movie capital of Scotland.

But the real story of the premiere was reported in the Daily lr’et'nn/ under the headline ‘I‘d rather have a beer than a bonk‘. Was this a reference to allegations that Gazza was in no Inrrry to finish his game of pool and rtrsh to the bedside of his girlfriend Sheryl. sorry She/.za. who had gone into labour"?

No. the beer monster in question was ‘boo/y Blur star Damon Albarn' who was in town with girlfriend Justine from punk popsters Elastica. It being the night after Valentine‘s. Britpop‘s First Couple had booked the

honeymoon suite at Glasgow's swanky hotel ()nc I)cvonshire Gardens. But sadly Justine was unable to prise the bottle of Becks from Damon's fist. Ive been touring fora year and was desperate to try out that hed.‘ she confided. Could it he that the much- fancied Blur singer is a Britflop in bed'.’

'l'alking of deflation. Luton MI’ John L'arlisle had a pop at Scotland's national instrument during a (‘ommons debate on noisy neighbours. (‘arlislc suggested that bagpipes should he outlawed hccatrsc they ‘must he one of the most horrendous instruments ever invented‘. Scottish Nationalist .‘yll’ Roseanna Cunningham responded tartly that she'd rather ‘listen to the bagpipes than windbags droning on in this way". So what. pray. is Luton's great contribution to the nation's cultural life. Lorraine Chase. perhaps? (Eddie Gibb)

The List 23 Feb-7 Mar I996 5