A Scottish Government pledge on community justice has not been achieved, Audit Scotland has said.
Ministers have long sought to shift the balance of criminal justice away from incarceration and increase the use of community sentences such as community payback orders, drug programmes or electronic monitoring.
Scotland has one of the highest incarceration rates of any country in Western Europe, despite a presumption against short sentences being put in place by the Scottish Government in an attempt to dissuade judges from handing out jail periods of less than 12 months.
But the latest figures show the use of community sentences has stagnated in Scotland over the three most recent years, according to an Audit Scotland briefing paper released on Thursday.
In 2016-17, 59% of sentences handed down by courts – excluding fines – were community sentences, dropping to 56% the following year before returning to 59% in 2019-20.
Stephen Boyle, the Auditor General, said: “Reducing reoffending by shifting the balance of sentencing from prison to the community has the potential to reduce the costs to the individual, taxpayer and wider society.
“But that Scottish Government aim hasn’t yet been achieved.”
Recent figures suggest community sentences have a positive effect on both the reoffending chances of the perpetrator and the public purse.
Scottish Government analysis found in 2016-17 that the cost of housing a prisoner in Scotland was, on average, £37,344 compared to a cost of just £1894 for community sentences.
Of those released from a sentence of less than 12 months, 49% went on to reoffend in the first year, while just 29% of those given a community sentence offended again.
But the use of community sentences varied wildly depending on the local authority area, with just 15.9 CPOs per 10,000 of the population given out in East Renfrewshire, compared to 68.7 in Clackmannanshire.
The Audit Scotland report laid out a number of issues the Scottish Government will need to consider as ministers look to increase the number of community justice sentences.
The reasons for geographical fluctuations, the “slow” shift from custody to community sentencing and whether the data being used to assess outcomes is “appropriate”.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government welcomed the report, adding: “While sentencing decisions in individual cases are a matter for the independent courts, we are committed to encouraging more widespread use of community-based interventions where appropriate.
“These are often more effective at reducing re-offending, as Audit Scotland sets out and for keeping our communities safe.
“In addition to continued investment in community justice services, which will total more than £117m this year, Parliament agreed in 2019 to extend the presumption against short custodial sentences from three to 12 months.
“Although it is too early to determine the impact of the extension, the use of such sentences has fallen significantly in recent years, with those receiving a sentence of 12 months or less reducing by 13% in the most recent data between 2018-19 and 2019-20.
“Our firm focus on prevention and effective community interventions has helped see Scotland’s reconviction rate fall to its lowest level since comparable records began more than 20 years ago.
“We intend to continue building on progress to date, including through a review of the National Strategy for Community Justice and expanding availability of alternatives to custody.”
Labour justice spokeswoman Pauline McNeill said the report should be a “wake-up call” to the Scottish Government.
“Many of our prisons are extremely overcrowded, made worse by the high levels of people held on remand in Scotland.
“Community justice, particularly for those who have not been convicted of a violent crime, must become more widely used.
“Evidence suggests that community justice sentences are effective at reducing reoffending as well as being less costly to the taxpayer.
“We need a real strategy to deliver on the ambitions of this crucial legislation and make the long overdue move towards community justice that we need to see.”
Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Jamie Greene said: “The so-called punishment component of community sentencing has already been scrapped by the SNP.
“Over a third of unpaid work hours have been written off by them. It is little wonder then that victims had already said they had lost faith in community sentences.”
He added that the government has “failed to implement robust community sentences” and called for a “toughening up” of the justice system.
Scottish Government ministers “cannot continue to betray victims by failing to ensure the punishment fits the crime”, he said, adding: “The Scottish Conservatives will continue to push for a Victims Law to ensure the system is finally on their side and fight any plans by the SNP to weaken punishments for offenders.”