Scottish government seeking to release prisoners early amid soaring numbers

The emergency early release of prisoners is being proposed by the Scottish government to ease overcrowding amid a spike in numbers, putting the prison estate at "critical risk".

Justice Secretary Angela Constance said the move would only apply to those serving sentences shorter than four years and not anyone with a life sentence or convicted of sexual offences or domestic abuse.

Ms Constance told Holyrood on Thursday the country's prison population has increased sharply by around 400 since 18 March, and 13% since the beginning of 2023.

Currently sitting at 8,348, Ms Constance said it is one of the highest levels ever recorded in Scotland.

She added: "There is now a critical risk to the continued safe and effective operation of the estate, with multiple prisons essentially full.

"The Scottish Prison Service's ability to deliver rehabilitative regimes has been severely curtailed; visits to prisoners are becoming difficult to maintain; and there are increasing challenges to the effective delivery of NHS services."

If agreed by the Scottish parliament, an early release scheme would mean:
• Only prisoners serving short sentences of under four years who have 180 days or less left to serve will be considered for release
• Prisoners such as those given a life sentence, or serving a sentence for sexual offences or domestic abuse, will be automatically excluded
• Prison governors will have the power to veto the release of any prisoner they deem an immediate risk to a specific individual or group

Following her statement to the parliament, Ms Constance said: "Protecting the public remains an absolute priority and the bedrock of every decision that we take.

"I have consistently said that I would only use emergency early release if it was absolutely necessary, so this is not a decision that I take lightly - and I appreciate the concerns it will raise.

"Due to the rapid rise in the prison population - creating an unprecedented situation similar to challenges faced across the UK - immediate action is needed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Scottish Prison Service staff.

"We need to ensure prisons can function effectively, focus on those who pose the greatest risk of harm, and provide programmes that help reduce reoffending."

Read more from Sky News:
'High risk' prisoners 'let out of jail' under early release scheme

First minister apologises after woman nearly died while waiting for ambulance

On 26 May, the Scottish government will bring into force section 11 of the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Act 2023, which provides ministers with the power to release prisoners in emergency situations.

If the legal test for use of emergency release is satisfied, the justice secretary will seek approval from MSPs within the following two weeks.

Ms Constance insisted the scheme will have specific safeguards built in.

She also said ministers will look at how the release of long-term prisoners is managed, saying she will bring a bill forward in the autumn, as well as expanding the criteria for home detention.

Ms Constance added: "I am committed to ensuring that parliament considers the approach before a single prisoner is released. We will also be engaging with victims organisations, local authorities and other key partners.

"Scotland is not alone in managing a high prison population. England and Wales are also experiencing similar issues and are operating a rolling early release process to manage prison overcrowding, which they introduced in October 2023, and have recently extended."