JUSTICE: Proportion of under-25 criminals going to prison has plummeted

By Bill Heaney

The proportion of under-25 criminals going to prison has dropped by almost one third since the SNP’s controversial sentencing guidelines came into force last year.

Figures obtained by the Scottish Conservatives, via a Freedom of Information request, show that between January 2022 – when the regulations were introduced – and December 2022, around one in 11 offenders aged 24 and below received a custodial sentence.

That compares to around one in eight in that age bracket beforehand – representing a 31.1% drop-off.

The Scottish Sentencing Council guidelines state that a criminal below the age of 25 years should only be imprisoned as a last resort and, if they are jailed, their sentence should be shorter than had they been 25 or over.

The provisions led to a public outcry earlier this year, when a man who raped a 13-year-old girl escaped prison on account of his age.

Shadow justice secretary Jamie Greene, left, who has repeatedly called for the guidelines to be scrapped by SNP ministers, described the figures as “a damning illustration of SNP soft-touch justice in action”.

He also called on justice secretary Angela Constance to “get her priorities right” and start putting victims ahead of criminals in Scotland’s justice system. 

Jamie Greene MSP said: “These figures are shocking and unacceptable – yet, at the same time, the inevitable consequence of a flawed policy.  The public can see these guidelines are patently unfair and a damning illustration of SNP soft-touch justice in action.

“They are an insult to victims of crime, so why are ministers persisting with them?

“Surely they saw the public outrage when a man convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl was spared prison on account of his age? The victim and her family were clear that the paltry sentence handed to this brute added to her anguish and hampered her ability to move on from her ordeal.

“The Sean Hogg case may be the most extreme example of these perverse guidelines in action but there have been numerous other examples of judges citing them when sentencing criminals. 

“These statistics highlight how judges’ hands are being tied. Enough is enough – it’s time for the SNP justice secretary to get her priorities right, put victims’ rights ahead of criminals’ rights and ditch these guidelines now.” 

Sentencing guidelines from an SNP quango mean under-25s get shorter sentences than 25-year-olds for committing the same crime. The guidelines state ‘A custodial sentence should only be imposed on a young person when the court is satisfied that no other sentence is appropriate. If a custodial sentence is imposed on a young person, it should be shorter than that which would have been imposed on an older person for the same, or a similar, offence.’ (Scottish Sentencing Council, Sentencing young people, September 2021, link). 

Before the sentencing guidelines passed, around 1 in 8 under-25s convicted of a crime went to prison. Between April 2020 and 25 January 2022, the day before the under-25 sentencing guidelines came into effect, 2,070 under-25s were sentenced to prison out of 16,028 criminals under 25 who were convicted in that time. This equates to 12.9% of under 25s being sentenced to jail in that time, around 1 in 8 criminals. (Scottish Government FOI response, 9 June 2023; spreadsheet with figures attached).

Following these guidelines coming into effect, this dropped to around 1 in 11 under-25s going to jail. Between 26 January 2022 and December 2022, 955 under-25s were sentenced to prison out of 10,725 under-25s convicted of a crime. This is equivalent to 8.9% (Scottish Government FOI response, 9 June 2023).

This means since the sentencing guidelines have passed, the proportion of under 25s going to prison has fallen by a third. By comparing the rates of imprisonment pre and post guidelines coming into effect, it can be calculated that the proportion of under-25s going to prison has dropped by 31.1%, nearly a third. This is calculated as follows: Before the sentencing guidelines (April 2020 to 25 January 2022): 2,070 out of 16,028 under 25s went to prison, or 12.91%. After the sentencing guidelines (26 January 2022 to 25 December 2022): 955 out of 10,725 under 25s went to prison, or 8.9%. 12.91%-8.9% = 4.01% percentage points. 4.01/12.91 = 31.1%.

A convicted rapist, whose victim was a 13-year-old girl, avoided jail due to sentencing guidelines. Sean Hogg, 21, attacked a schoolgirl in Dalkeith Country Park on various occasions between March and June 2018. He was ordered to complete 270 hours of unpaid work under a Community Payback Order. The judge presiding over the case said: ‘For this offence, if committed by an adult over 25, you attract a sentence of four or five years. I don’t consider that appropriate and don’t intend to send you to prison. You are a first offender with no previous history of prison – you are 21 and were 17 at the time. Prison does not lead me to believe this will contribute to your rehabilitation.’ (BBC News, 3 April 2023, link).

A murderer who burned his victim alive got five years off the punishment part of his life sentence. The judge presiding over the case described the killer’s act as ‘unimaginably wicked and indeed medieval in their barbarity’. He also confirmed: ‘I have determined on the particular facts of this case that the notional headline punishment part of that sentence should sit at a period of 29 years. Taking into account, as I require to, the circumstances of your early plea and the engaged guidelines for the sentencing of offenders under 25, and approaching these discounting elements on an in cumulo basis, I fix the actual punishment part of your life sentence at a period of 24 years.’ (Sky News, 24 May 2023, link).

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