Prisoners serving sentences under four years to be released due to overcrowding crisis

HMP Edinburgh
HMP Edinburgh -Credit:SWNS

Violent criminals serving sentences under four years could be released from prison due to a “critical” rise in people behind bars.

SNP Justice Secretary Angela Constance said the threshold for “emergency release” had been reached, but said sex offenders would not qualify.

In a statement at Holyrood, Constance informed MSPs that the prison population had risen from 7,948 to 8,348.

She said the immediate cause of the 400 increase was unclear, but said a “critical risk” was now posed to the bursting prison estate.

She said the rise was curbing the Scottish Prison Service’s ability to deliver rehabilitative schemes and making prison visits difficult.

One response will be activating the Ministerial power of releasing prisoners in emergency situations.

She said: “My hope was that this would never need to be used. However, as things stand today, my view is that we have reached the threshold for taking emergency action.

“If the legal test for use of emergency release is satisfied when the provisions come into force on 26 May, I intend to bring forward a proposal for Parliament’s consideration as soon as possible within the following two weeks.”

She added: "My intention is that those released would be serving sentences of under four years. Public safety will always be my priority, and I can reassure Parliament that there are protections in place so that no one serving a sentence for sexual offences or domestic abuse will be released, with a governor veto also available.”

Constance also said another measure will be managing the release of long-term prisoners.

She said there are “potential benefits” of increasing the time offenders spend on supervised release before the end of their sentence.

Kate Wallace, Chief Executive of Victim Support Scotland said: “We are extremely concerned about Scottish Government plans for the emergency release of prisoners, having only had this confirmed today.

“The motivation for this is the current highest ever prison populations, and the crisis that these figures bring. In essence though, the experience of the last time this was done in Scotland shows that we are only transferring this crisis to reoffending, drug deaths and further pressure on support services.

“Victim Support Scotland’s primary concern is victim safety. We anticipate that many people whose perpetrator is currently in prison, will be concerned that they will be released and negatively impact on their day-to-day lives and safety.

“When this happened before, over 40% of prisoners reoffended within a six-month period with this usually measured over a year. This is worryingly high and has the potential to create a whole new raft of victims.

“Perpetrators of domestic abuse and people on the sex offender’s register are excluded from release plans, but we need to understand more fully the selection criteria for release. Importantly, we welcome the Governor’s veto, which VSS lobbied strongly for during the Bail and Release from Custody Act, and which will come into force for prisoners who may be considered eligible.

“Rumours about emergency release plans have been rife for some time now, and only confirmed today with little notice. Surely we could have spent that time planning for this and taking into account victims’ views? We worry that the Scottish Government has seriously underestimated the negative impact this will have on victim confidence in the justice system."

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