Charity could hold key to keeping accused out of jail

Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
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NEARLY one-fifth of Scotland’s prison population is made up of people on remand awaiting trial.

Accused of a wide range of offences, they are innocent until proven guilty and only half of them will end up being sentenced to a jail term.

Yet they find themselves locked up, separated from their families and unable to go to work for an average of almost three weeks.

Scotland’s inspector of prisons has said remand is used too often - and the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee is conducting an inquiry into the issue.

Now MSPs from the committee have visited Edinburgh-based charity Circle Scotland, which runs several projects working with offenders and their families, and may be able to help provide an alternative to remand. One of Circle’s projects, the Women’s Outreach Team, offers women who have been convicted a direct alternative to imprisonment. Issued with an electronic tag or community payback order, they are supported to stay in the community by the Circle workers.

Over the past 18 months, the project has worked with 36 women - and none of them have returned to prison.

Circle Scotland chief executive Rhona Hunter, who hosted the MSPs’ visit, believes a similar project could work with people on remand.

She said: “They were asking our views about remand and we feel there could be alternatives to remand.

“The Women’s Outreach Team project working with women who have been convicted could easily be adapted to work with people on remand. It could lead to better outcomes when they appear in court and perhaps reduce offending.”

She said the project was currently operating in Lanarkshire but could be replicated anywhere. “It’s very easy to set up,” she said.

Ms Hunter said the project benefited the women, their families and the community.

“It’s a huge success - you’ve not separated them from their families, you’ve not disrupted their lives and they have not offended again. One woman has gone on to set up her own business, which she would never have done if she’d been sent to prison.”

Edinburgh Southern Labour MSP Daniel Johnson, who was on the visit, said remand accounted for a large proportion of the prison population.

“And a lot of people who are on remand ultimately don’t end up with custodial sentences, even if they are found guilty.

“The question raised is, if people are not going to get a prison sentence why are we sending them to prison before their trial? It doesn’t seem right.”

Edinburgh Northern & Leith SNP MSP Ben Macpherson, who was also on the visit, said: “It was great to hear more about what Circle have done in terms of the different projects and the support they provide. It’s clear Circle and organisations like them are helping to stop reoffending.”

And SNP MSP Rona Mackay, deputy convener of the committee, said: “We have heard there are problems with the way remand is being used. In some circumstances remand may be causing more problems than it solves.”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com