Campaign to end graffiti vandal’s 'unfair' sentence
Case highlights need for non-custodial sentences
By John Bynorth, Home Affairs Editor
JUSTICE SECRETARY Kenny MacAskill has renewed his pledge to avoid sending less serious offenders to prison after a campaign was launched to free a graffiti vandal from one of the longest sentences for the crime handed down in Scotland.
Gary Shields, 21, received 28 months in prison after pleading guilty to causing thousands of pounds worth of damage after spray painting his "Daze" tag on railway property over 16 months.
His jailing has provoked anger among penal reform campaigners and his family, friends, and employers who claim a community-based punishment and fine would have been appropriate.
It has also led to further criticism of Scotland's inconsistent sentencing system with similar tariffs given to cannabis dealers, knife assailants and serious motoring offenders.
Shields was about to be put through university by the design firm he worked for as a trainee structural engineer, when he was jailed at Ayr Sheriff Court two weeks ago.
The judge in the case, Sheriff Colin Miller, had been known to take a tough stance on graffiti vandalism. Shields, who had never been in prison before, spent his first night among hardened criminals in Barlinnie's E Hall because Kilmarnock prison was full. He faces a six-month wait to be assessed for a move to the Castle Huntley open prison in Angus.
Last week, Holyrood voted to give some long-termers home detention curfews after First Minister Alex Salmond conceded that there is an overcrowding crisis. MacAskill, who refused to comment directly on the sentence, stressed the importance of the government's independent prisons commission headed by former first minister Henry McLeish reporting back to parliament with viable alternatives to custodial sentences in June.
He said: "In the longer term, we remain committed to shifting the balance on spending from prisons towards community penalties. We believe less serious offenders currently cluttering our jails should be paying back their debts to society - not adding to society's bill for their bed and board."
John Scott, chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland, added: "Shields is exactly the sort of person who doesn't need to be put in prison. Community punishments are designed for people like him, who are no danger to the public."
Other graffiti vandals have seen lesser sentences. Graffiti artist, Dudley Halls, who "bombed" stations across Scotland causing thousands of pounds worth of damage was jailed for two months last year at Perth Sheriff Court. An 18-year-old who caused £62,000 worth of damage received an Asbo and was ordered to pay £2500 compensation at Leeds youth court last year.
Speaking to the Sunday Herald from Barlinnie Prison, Shields said he is sharing a cell with a man who is serving a similar sentence for trafficking 50 kilos of cannabis with a value of £130,000.
Shields, from Crookston, Glasgow, said: "Although I've been given one of the best jobs in the prison, on reception checking-in inmates, it is still a shock to be in a place like Barlinnie. I am very sorry for the graffiti damage that I did, and realise I have let down my family, friends and work.
"But I feel the book was thrown at me. Drug dealers have got similar sentences to me. How can that be right?"
His father, John, 43, said: "He is not out doing drugs and messing up his life. He a responsible person, a carer for his mother who is not well and had a good job, car and steady girlfriend."
Fellow graffiti artist David Knox last week launched a "Free Daze" campaign on MySpace and through graffiti allegedly daubed on walls and trains in Dundee, Berlin and Hamburg.
David Robertson, whose firm employed Shields on projects that included a residential home for unruly children and the renovation of a listed former police station in Govan, said: "This sentence could ruin him and send him in the wrong direction."
His solicitor, Matthew Berlow, confirmed an appeal has been lodged against the severity of the sentence.