Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank


Prohibition, not presumption, is the only way to actually end short-term sentences

Reform Scotland, the independent, non-party think tank, will next week publish a new report – Reforming Prison. The report, which aims to contribute to the debate on how to better rehabilitate those subject to short-term sentences, will recommend that all jail sentences of six months or less should be banned.
The Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 introduced a presumption against sentences of three months or less. Despite this, nearly 30% of all prison sentences in 2015/16 were for three months or less, and automatic early release meant that 65% of offenders that year serves three months or less.

As a result, Reform Scotland believes a presumption against short sentences does not go far enough and only an outright ban on their use will lead to a change.

Commenting, Reform Scotland’s Research Director, Alison Payne, said:

“The Scottish Prison Service itself has said that there are limited opportunities for rehabilitation during short sentence.

“Furthermore, the disruption of a short sentence, including loss of income and employment, and problems with childcare and family relationships, often makes the sentences disproportionate to the crime.

“A presumption against short sentences is well meaning but, in the final analysis, if we don’t want short sentences then we have to prohibit them.

“People make mistakes and we need to help ensure that such mistakes are not repeated, not just because of the emotional and financial cost of crime to victims, families and society, but because of the loss of human potential.
“Such a view is neither ideological nor controversial, but is human and compassionate.  However, it is not a view that is reflected in Scotland’s sentencing regime.”



  1. Reform Scotland is an independent, non-party think tank that aims to set out a better way to deliver increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the traditional Scottish principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility. Further information is available at
  2. Reform Scotland would ban all prison sentences of less than 6 months in Scotland.  If automatic early release remains in place for short-sentences (as it currently does) the ban should extend to 12 months. This would also necessitate removing the ability of JP courts to hand out prison sentences altogether as currently the maximum sentence they can give is less than six months, at 60 days.
  3. Reform Scotland first called for the end of short-term prison sentences in 2008, in its report Power to Protect.
  4. The following FOI response from the SPS highlights the limited opportunities for rehabilitation and training to prisoners serving sentences of less than six months:
    “In response to question 1, most of our offending behaviour programmes require individuals to be in custody for longer than 6 months. This is to allow for assessment of suitability for, and then completion of, a programme. In response to question 2, SPS provides a range of training and learning opportunities to individuals serving less than 6 months. Please note that SPS does not differentiate between those serving less than 6 months and those serving less than 3. These opportunities will vary from prison to prison although the following principles generally apply. All prisons offer a range of vocational and employment opportunities for convicted prisoners. Examples include industrial cleaning, waste management, laundry and catering.Vocational qualifications are delivered at the learner’s pace and as such will often require more than 6 months to complete. However, training is available to all convicted prisoners in areas such as Health and Safety, Elementary Food Hygiene and First Aid and can be completed by those serving less than 6 months.Learning activities within prisons are available to all convicted prisoners regardless of sentence length. These are provided via a commercial contract and offer learning opportunities designed to meet the needs of the learner, taking account of their needs and abilities, including literacies level and their time in custody.”
  5. Media: Message Matters (Andy Maciver 07855 261 244, [email protected]; Peter Duncan, 07740 469 949, [email protected])