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Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill today issued the following statement in response to the publication of "Criminal Proceedings in Scottish Courts 2006/07", which show a five per cent increase in the number of people proceeded against in the courts in the year to the end of March 2007, the highest figure since 1997/98.
The report also shows that last year the number of custodial sentences imposed was the highest in ten years and that there were more custodial sentences than community sentences imposed by the courts. Over 80 per cent of all custodial sentences were for six months or less. The statistics showed that 15 per cent of all offences were committed by a person on bail for another offence.
The Justice Minister's staement in full reads as follows:
"These figures are a stark reminder of the problems that we have inherited. Our prisons are full. In the course of a year many thousands of offenders who are serving short sentences for minor crimes pass through our overcrowded prisons."
"As a result, the serious and dangerous criminals who are rightly locked up are not getting the help they need to help them to tackle the underlying causes of their offending.
"I remain convinced that community penalties can play an increasing part in our progressive penal policy. There is strong evidence to suggest that re-offending levels are much lower for those who carry out community penalties as opposed to short prison sentences. However I accept that there is still much work to be done in terms of improving the effectiveness of community penalties.
"That is why our action plan on community penalties is being taken forward as a matter of urgency and will allow courts to use them with confidence in a wider range of cases in future.
"But let me be clear - our drive to toughen up and improve alternatives to custody will not be to the detriment of public safety. We are already making record investment in prisons including the building of three new prisons and I strongly believe that prison will always be the right place for serious and dangerous offenders.
"By making the range of community penalties available to the courts as robust as possible we can help ensure they are used with confidence in all appropriate cases. But Government doesn't have a monopoly on good ideas and that is why we have established an independent Prisons Commission to bring fresh thinking on the use and purpose of prison in contemporary Scotland. It is due to report back at the end of the month.
"The number of bail-related offences is far too high and that is why the Scottish Government has driven forward the reforms to the bail system. Changes introduced last December have tightened up the process making it clearer to all involved. Also, in the most serious cases, if you are accused of violence, sexual or drugs offences and you have a similar serious previous conviction you will only be allowed bail in exceptional circumstances.
"The increase in the number of people proceeded against in court is evidence of the hard work by the dedicated professionals in the police, Crown Office and the Scottish Court Service.
"The Scottish Government is committed to helping them work smarter in the future by being able to concentrate their energies on taking through court those serious cases that deserve valuable court time and divert from court cases that can sensibly and appropriately be dealt with by way of a non court disposal such as a fixed penalty or fiscal fine.
"That is why we are driving forward the reforms to the summary justice system. We want to develop a summary justice system that is fair, effective, efficient, quick and simple."