"End automatic early release!" It's red meat for the Tory base, and hearty stuff. Ruth Davidson's Scottish Tory Manifesto, published yesterday, contains the following passage on the party's proposals for criminal justice:
"We have long campaigned for the scrapping of automatic early release. The changes brought in by the SNP affect only 3% of prisoners (those on long sentences), but we believe the presumption for all sentences is that they should be served in full, with additional discretion for the Parole Board. The time offenders spend behind bars should be decided by judges and not politicians. Ending automatic early release would mean offenders serving the sentence handed out and spending more time in rehabilitation."
There are a few well-rehearsed ironies about this. Automatic early release was brought in across the UK by John Major's Conservative government in 1993. If every prisoner is going to serve his whole tariffs behind bars, it is far from clear what "additional discretion" she thinks the parole board might legitimately exercise. Perhaps she envisages some modest, compassionate exceptions to the massive programme of incarceration she is proposing. But I'm more interested in the resource implications of all this.
To come even to a sketchy understanding of these costs, we have to take a closer look at (a) the automatic early release rules which currently apply and (b) the characteristics of the Scottish prison population.
At present, the amended Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993 governs early release. So how does it work? The law distinguishes between (a) short term prisoners and (b) long term prisoners. Lifers are handled differently, serving the punishment part of their sentence, before parole may even be considered. Angus Sinclair, for example, received a 37 year punishment part for the murders of Christine Eadie and Helen Scott, forever associated with the World's End pub in Edinburgh. For Sinclair, life means life.
The 1993 Act defines a short term prisoner as someone serving a prison term of less than four years, with a long term prisoner defined as a convict sent down for four years of more. A short term prisoner is entitled to be released unconditionally from prison after serving half their sentence. A long term prisoner is entitled to be released on licence -- and thus is vulnerable to recall if they get up to mischief -- after serving two thirds of their prison sentence. The rules for prisoners serving longer sentences were tweaked at the tail end of the Holyrood session, limiting automatic release to the last six months of a long term prisoner's sentence. This, Ms Davidson wants to sweep all this away.
Fine. But what would it cost? And how many people are we talking about? Official statistics show that the average daily prison population continues to hover around the 8,000 mark. Figures from July 2015, for example, gave an daily average population of 8,062. The overwhelming majority of these men and women are serving "short sentences" - sentences which would double in length under a Davidson administration. Take a look at this Scottish Government chart from December 2015, on receptions to prisons by year, and by sentence length.
Taking 2013/14, you can see there were around 1,000 prisoners sentenced to prison terms of more than 2 years but less than 4 years. A further 2,500 individuals entered jail with a prison tariff of 3 months or less, with around 3,000 people serving between 3 month and 6 month sentences. Finally, over 5,500 serving sentences of between 6 months and two years. All of these incoming prisoners - under Davidson's plans - would end up serving double their current terms behind bars. The Scottish Tories proposing to double the prison terms served by - roughly - 12,000 people.
Now, you may or may not have sympathy with the principle of this policy, either on grounds of vengeance, or transparency. I'd merely note that our judges aren't idiots. They understand perfectly well that those they sentence to prison terms will be released once they've spent sufficient time in prison. They aren't hoodwinked by early release. Indeed, some judges may well factor the real term to be spent incarcerated into their sentencing.
But ask the money question. Do a fagpacket calculation. Consider the implications. Under Ruth Davidson's plans, every single short term prisoner will be serving double the period of incarceration they are currently serving, during which period, you and I will be picking up the tab for their food and housing, their supervision, and their modest diversion while behind bars.
Let me remind you also: the costs of doing so are not insignificant. The average annual cost per prisoner place for 2013–14 was £33,153, excluding capital charges, exceptional compensation claims and the cost of the escort contract.
You may well think this a tariff worth paying. But it is no small amount of money. And this estimate is just the revenue cost. We haven't even begun to factor in the implications of cancelling early release for capital spending, or the social costs of further swelling the population of our Victorian prisons, with implications for the quality of life, the degree of supervision available, and the availability of rehabilitation services.
Scotland simply does not have the space in its overstuffed prisons to accommodate a significantly larger prison population. Overspill facilities will have to be built, and funds allocated and buildings planned to ensure that our prison population is kept in appropriate conditions with a decent minimum standard. And that takes money, and that takes time. But what does Ms Davidson say about how she intends to meet these very significant revenue and capital costs? Sod all. What plan does her manifesto outline? No plan at all. And where will the additional cuts fall to meet the significant costs of this policy? Answer came there none.
No doubt Ms Davidson's answer, if challenged about any of this would be "We're just the plucky opposition. We're losers. We're only trying to give Scottish Labour a kicking: not to get into government." But that won't do at all. "I've no chance of power and therefore I should be able to make whatever uncosted pledges I like" shouldn't cut it either. Just ask that mighty master of detail, David Coburn MEP.
If Ruth Davidson wants her party to be the serious party of opposition in Holyrood, she's going to have to take her own policy platform much more seriously. If this massive, uncosted justice pledge is anything to go by -- like her photo ops and her "blue collar" rhetoric -- it's all still a big joke.