SOMETIMES it can be hard to see the criminal justice system in Scotland for what it really is. The popular perception often is that our courts and prisons are a soft touch and far too easy on offenders. Community sentences can also be seen as tantamount to a convicted person getting away with it. But is that what the criminal justice system is really like? Are we really the soft touch we think we are?

The figures would suggest not – in fact, Scotland sends many more people to prison than comparable countries such as Germany and Sweden. The figures on life sentences are also striking and can look high when compared to other nations. Russia, for example, has 1,800 life prisoners, France 500 and England 5,500 compared to 1,000 in Scotland. Of course, the definitions of “life” will vary in different countries, making direct comparison tricky, but the truth is clear: Scotland is a liberal society in most respects but on criminal justice, far from it.

The sad fact is that using prison in the way we do has also consistently failed to work. Sending someone to prison will often be the only option, and society would expect nothing less in many cases, but we also know that a prison sentence – particularly a short one – often spectacularly fails to achieve much of what it is supposed to and can lead straight back to re-offending. This is mostly because the prisoner is cut off from their friends, family, work and other factors that can keep them away from offending.

We also know that prison policy in Scotland is consistently failing people with mental health problems. Some 80 per cent of Scottish inmates suffer from mental health issues and yet our prison system does not put prisoner welfare – let alone rehabilitation – at the heart of policy. Doing so would not be going soft – in fact, as prison policy in Scandinavian countries has demonstrated, helping prisoners with their mental health issues reduces levels of psychiatric problems and so in the longer term levels of reoffending.

In some respects, the Scottish Government has started to head in the right direction. A presumption against prison sentences of three months or less was introduced in 2011 and will be extended to 12 months, and while it is still early days, this increased use of more community sentences in place of prison would seem to have helped reduce reoffending in Scotland to an 18-year low. Community disposals now make up nearly one in five sentences passed by Scottish courts, compared with only 12 per cent a decade ago.

However, the prison population remains unacceptably high and in a speech in Edinburgh tonight, the criminologist Professor Dirk Van Zyl Smit will argue Scotland should abolish automatic life sentences for murderers. “The main concern,” he says, “is numbers are burgeoning here, while some countries do not have life sentences at all.”

Is there a chance such an argument could ever gain support in Scotland? It would certainly be politically very difficult and not nearly as easy as changing the sentencing policy for much less serious crimes. But if there is to be meaningful reform of the criminal justice system, it has to happen from the top to the bottom – judges should be able to consider a range of sentences based on the facts of the case; custodial sentences should also be focused much more on education and rehabilitation.

None of that could happen without also strengthening the public’s faith in community alternatives and in how and when prisoners are released. But the potential prize is great. Right now, our courts and prisons appear to accept a high risk of re-offending as just a part of the system. But by reducing our reliance on prison, we could do much more to reduce offending. And isn’t that, ultimately, what our criminal justice system should be all about?