Angus criminals could avoid unpaid work sentences due to a huge backlog in the council’s social work department.
Some offenders will instead log on to “approved online programmes” as officials work to cut the backlog.
Sheriff Lorna Drummond QC raised concerns about the effect on sentencing when dealing with Kellas sex offender Gregor Tyler in Dundee Sherriff Court earlier this week.
Tyler had previously admitted downloading child abuse images.
Sheriff Drummond highlighted a 28 month long waiting list for an unpaid work placement in the county. She called for a report to assess a restriction of liberty order for Tyler.
She said: “The issue for the court is that there is now a delay in dealing with unpaid work. I will raise that with the social workers in Angus.
“Supervision is not a punishment for these offences.”
‘Worst case’ scenario
Angus Council has subsequently said 28 months was a “worst case scenario” and the current estimated backlog was closer to 24 weeks.
Unfulfilled community payback orders are a growing problem across Scotland due to coronavirus restrictions. The service has either been suspended, or working at a limited capacity, since March last year.
Arbroath councillor Lois Speed, Independent, said she and colleagues had been briefed on issues with the service.
She said: “Ordinarily, there are tens of thousands of hours of unpaid work carried out in Angus every year. But the current Chief Medical Officer advice is that the service is paused.
“Even when re-started, the ability to bring groups of people together to undertake unpaid work activities is significantly impacted by coronavirus safety restrictions.”
Councillor Julie Bell, SNP, said: “I also know that the pandemic has caused significant issues across the whole justice system and that our social work teams have been supporting and working with clients as best they can.”
Payback hours cut by ‘up to 35%’
The Scottish Government is trying to cut the backlog across the country.
Ministers first extended all unpaid work requirements by 12 months and, earlier this year, reduced the number of hours of unpaid work outstanding on many offences by up to 35%.
The exceptions are sentences imposed for domestic abuse, sexual offences, or stalking.
An Angus Council spokeswoman said the local authority had recruited two additional unpaid work supervisors and increased their pool of vehicles to enable more of its teams to run at one time.
She said: “We have also commissioned approved online programmes delivered by third sector partners.
“The current estimated timescale for starting unpaid work is around 24 weeks. This is account of the changed regulatory and Covid context.
“The Justice Service continues to explore means to increase capacity and reduce this timescale further.
“The waiting time as reported, was based on a previous estimated ‘worst case’ scenario, and did not take into account recent steps taken both nationally and locally,” she added.