Niven Rennie says we need a different approach to dealing with criminals

The Herald Scotland, by David Leask
21.12.19

SCOTLAND must drop its “hang em high” punitive attitude to criminals if is to make further reductions in violence, according to the man charged with cutting the nation’s toll of murders and assaults.

Former senior police officer Niven Rennie, director of the Violence Reduction Unit, warned political and press rhetoric of “soft-touch justice” was a barrier to progress.

Speaking as figures suggested homicides will rise this year, Mr Rennie said Scotland needed to live up to its own self-image as a caring, progressive society if it wanted to make further inroads in to violent offending.

Speaking to The Herald, Mr Rennie said that it was no longer possible to tackle residual violence without recognising its causes in poverty and the other symptoms of poverty, such as drug and alcohol abuse.

He said: “People call this ‘soft on crime’. Actually it is really, really hard. Because it is against public opinion.

“It is not a soft option, it is an option that a more progressive society should be taking. So how do we take the population with us to recognise this?”

“It is not a message that is going to be easy to deliver.”

Mr Rennie suggested there were deep-seated attitudes to those who get in to trouble with the law which were getting in the way of evidence-led efforts to reduce crime.

He said: “There is this caring compassionate Scotland with an underlying desire to punish, an old Calvinistic viewpoint.

“Some of the narrative in our press needs to be more positive. Some of the language we use around people who have come from traumatic backgrounds is quite judgmental as well.”

Mr Rennie agrees that newspapers are reflecting the widely held views of their readers. “I understand that. I want to challenge those widely held views.”

Violent crime in Scotland crashed after the VRU began working 15 years ago. Police and government began collaborating with third-sector governments, especially to tackle gang and street violence.

The efforts have made international headlines. VRUs are being set up across England. Other countries to are trying to emulate Scotland’s success. However, Scottish violence is no longer falling. Figures have been hovering around the same level for some years.

Serious violence rose 10 per cent in Scotland the last financial year, according to official statistics. This calendar year police are bracing themselves for an increases in homicides after a spate of killings over the summer.

Analysts have long warned that official statistics on the most grave violent crimes are plateauing after nearly two decades of decline.

Mr Rennie said: “The big reduction happened by tackling the gang violence in Glasgow.

“The violence we are now seeing occurs in the houses and is social in nature.

“It is in our deprived areas. It is linked to alcohol and drugs and homelessness.You cannot tackle these things in isolation. Education programmes are great but to a certain extent we are just keeping a cap to where we are.

“We have 8100 people in jail in Scotland. Loads of them have drug and alcohol problems and the best place for them is not prison.

“Our traditional method of dealing with this is stop and search. So you suppress the problem, you deal with it for a short time, whereas we know preventative measures are more long-lasting.

“For people who present as problems through violence or alcohol or drugs or mental health, our response is to wait until they commit a crime.

Mr Rennie added ”We need a completely different approach. There are progressive minds in Scotland about this.

“There is a general thread that runs across social media. But, in reality, we still work in the same day we always have done. ‘Put them to court’, ‘send them to prison”. ‘It’s their fault. It’s the choices they made. “Well, that goes against the evidence.

“We have academic reports coming out of years. We know this does not work.

“What really depresses me is that when the pressure is on, we fall back on the traditional view and disregard all the stuff we have learned over the last 10-15 years.”

Mr Rennie said some politicians were not reverting to old rhetoric. He said: “Why would Boris Johnson and Priti Patel make the statements they do?

“They have an electorate they have to satisfy. “Part of it is the political system. It is not so much it is the politicians who are the block or the police who are the block or education which is the block.

“Society has views on the world which are continually perpetuated. But they are not particularly accurate. It’s depressing.

“For some reason, there is a hardened attitude that we are not able to break through. Politicians, journalists, everybody needs to open their mind to what is prejudice passed on from one generation to the next. You grow up with hard and fast attitudes with good and bad. But we have showed through 15 years of VRU that there are reasons why people get involved in violence.”

Mr Rennie urged his fellow Scots to do more than pay lip service to rehabilitation. He said:”There are people who have turned their lives around and we should be embracing them.”