ENGLAND and Wales have been urged to copy so-called “soft touch Scotland” policies which have helped to slash reoffending to an 18-year low.

UK authorities have come under repeated attack from experts for persisting with get-tough penal policies proving ineffective at getting people back on the straight and narrow.

Now a London think tank has called on UK authorities to “look north of the border” where community sentences are helping to end the swinging door of short-term jail spells.

The Centre for Justice Innovation (CJI) said community sentences “had consistently reduced re-offending in both England and Wales and in Scotland over the past ten years”.

However, it added that the use of such sentences had dropped 24 per cent south of the border but risen 18 per cent north of the border over the last decade.

Much of that change, it said, has taken place since the SNP introduced Community Payback Orders in 2011 just as Tory Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, who favoured prison reform, lost cabinet battles.

Since Mr Clarke, a succession of eminent English justice leaders have lobbied for greater use of non-custodial sentencing south of the border.

England’s most senior judge, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, a year ago said there was “awful lot we can do to avoid sending certain people to prison”, Mr Clarke’s successor as justice secretary, Aberdeen-born Michael Gove, speaking after he left the post, described prison as “expensive and inefficient”.

However the CJI said: “It is clear that England and Wales and Scotland are on different journeys in the use of community sentences, especially since 2011 onwards.

“There is national and international evidence that community sentences are more effective at reducing reoffending than short-term prison sentences and provide better value for money.”

This evidence, the think tank stressed, applies even when adjusted to for the fact that individuals going to prison have a higher risk of re-offending than those who receive community sentences.

Community disposals now make up nearly one in five sentences passed by Scottish courts, compared with only 12 per cent a decade ago, said CJI.

Scotland is phasing out short-term prison sentences despite stiff opposition from Holyrood Conservatives. Scottish Justice Secretary Michael Matheson stressed that there much work remained to be done to reduce the prison population.

Speaking about CJI report, he said: “This provides further evidence of the effectiveness of community sentences as well as a welcome recognition of the progress we have made – and want to build upon – in Scotland.

“Our shift towards more community sentencing, including the introduction of community payback orders in 2011 have helped reduce Scotland’s reconviction rates by 17 per cent over the last decade, to an 18-year low.

“However, our prison population remains unacceptably high compared with nearly all other western European nations – with short prison sentences offering little scope to support people in custody to move away from a life of crime.”

“That is why we will extend the presumption against short-term prison sentences.” while promoting greater use of robust community sentences and more options, in the future, to deploy electronic monitoring.

Our focus is on tackling the underlying issues which drive offending behaviour and in so doing, continuing to reduce reoffending rates, keeping crime down and communities safe.”