I was brought up on short sentences. They took two forms. The first were the sentences that newspaper editors imposed on me in the pursuit of journalistic style. I read Hemingway and tried to perfect the technique, though not always with complete success. Breaking up a narrative with the occasional longer sentence, of the kind I am writing now, relieved the monotony and gave a pleasing variety to the page.
My editors were unconvinced. When I filed football reports for the Dundee Evening Telegraph, a sentence of more than six words was mercilessly chopped. You could forget the word 'mercilessly' for a start.
The other short sentences were the ones imposed by the lower criminal courts. The same editors discovered that I was unusually proficient in shorthand, an essential requirement for a court reporter. As a result of acquiring this skill, I was condemned for years to a working life of writing short sentences about short sentences. Thirty days. Sixty days. Three months. I had a graceful note for all of them. My beautiful shorthand gave shape to chaos, disorder, misery.
The spectacle of so much wretched humanity, day after day, failed to move me as it would move me now. In my youth I gave no thought to where these minor offenders were going. The terrible reality of prison scarcely touched me until, years later, I gave a series of talks about something or other – I have forgotten what – to inmates at Saughton prison in Edinburgh and was shocked by their primitive conditions.
Later still, I took a group of young people on a tour of Barlinnie prison in Glasgow. They may have arrived half-believing the myth perpetrated by the press, the stereotype of prison as a three-star hotel of mod cons designed for mod cons. After a couple of hours exposed to the halls, they left shaken. They had learned that in this three-star hotel you started each day by slopping out.
Informed by these experiences at the sharp end of our criminal justice system, I should applaud the prevailing liberal orthodoxy in Scotland that there is no longer a place for short prison sentences. A think tank, Reform Scotland, joined the chorus last week by proposing a ban on sentences of six months or less. The chief inspector of prisons, David Strang, had already gone further, calling for an end to jail terms of under a year. The Scottish government agrees in principle that prison 'should be reserved for people whose offences are so serious that no other form of punishment will do.'
It's an impressive consensus of enlightened opinion. And when the Scottish Prison Service adds that there are 'limited opportunities for rehabilitation during short sentences,' one can only endorse this statement of the bleeding obvious. The only dissenters – apart from the atavistic wing of the Conservative party and the punishment freaks in the press – are the bewigged functionaries dishing it out. Despite an official 'presumption' against sentences of three months or less, around 30% of all prison terms in 2015-6 fell into that category.
Perhaps we should have a discussion – what is called these days a 'consultation' – on so profound a collision between penal policy and penal practice. Meanwhile, I have arrived at a tentative presumption of my own: the courts are right.
When I wrote short sentences about short sentences, it never occurred to me that anyone could be rehabilitated in 60 days. You might remove offenders, however briefly, from the source of their offending (often an addiction of some kind) or do them a kindness by providing a temporary shelter (in the regrettable absence of any other) or, in the case of young offenders, deliver a jolt to the system. Yet many – maybe most – offenders came back for more. Prison 'didn't work' – except for the rest of us. We got a break.
Apart from the therapeutic value of short sentences for the mainly law-abiding majority, there are offences, including new ones, for which a short sentence feels appropriate. A current example is the case of the 4th Viscount St Davids, sentenced to 12 weeks for 'malicious communications' targeting Gina Miller, the woman who mounted a successful legal challenge to an important aspect of the Brexit legislation. When the judge warned this odious individual that his modest jail term might be increased if he proceeded with his appeal, he decided to go straight to the cells.
The fact that the 4th Viscount St Davids will not be 'rehabilitated' by the salutary experience of a few weeks in a tough London jail should not concern us. There was once a thing known as deterrence: the possibility in this case that the growing number of deranged individuals who derive pleasure from online abuse and harassment – often expressed in short sentences of an approximately literate nature – will now think twice before incurring a short sentence of their own. Their sole place of safety in future will be Scotland, a veritable troll haven, where the only people who go to prison will be those 'whose offences are so serious that no other form of punishment will do.'
Short sentences are not the issue. Long sentences are. If rehabilitation of the offender has mistakenly become the over-riding objective of our flawed justice system, you have to wonder why the judges are imposing longer and longer sentences for major crimes. Twelve to 15 years used to be the tariff for a mandatory life sentence. It is now more commonly 20 to 30 years. I don't recall any formal 'consultation' on this profound change in sentencing policy. Nor has any consideration been given to the effect of such excessive
sanctions, which, by removing the necessary incentive, destroy any
hope of rehabilitation.
I could write a long sentence about this, but I will content myself with a relatively short one. Minimum sentences of 25 years or more, being a living death for those who endure them, should be imposed with greater discrimination. Is that short enough?