Scottish Government plans to release prisoners early amid soaring numbers

The justice secretary said she has no choice but to act 'if we are to avoid an unprecedented crisis developing' as prisons reach a 'critical' point.

Some prisoners will be released early under plans by the Scottish Government to tackle the soaring number of people in the country’s jails.

The justice secretary made the announcement during a ministerial statement to Holyrood on Thursday afternoon as she warned prison estates are at “critical risk”.

Angela Constance told STV News she was concerned about the safety within prisons, including the potential for a rise in violence between prisoners and against staff.

It comes after the chief inspector of prisons for Scotland wrote to Constance to warn about her “deep concerns” about overcrowding.

Wendy Sinclair-Gieben said overcrowded prisons undermine the human rights of prisoners and pose “substantial risks to prison staff, public safety and the overall criminal justice system”.

The number of prisoners has increased 13% since 2023 with the population rising from 7,948 in March to 8,348 in May alone.

Constance said it was “unclear” why prisoner numbers had increased so much.

Some criminals could soon be released as the Scottish Government seeks to tackle overcrowding in jail cells.Getty Images

She agreed there is a “critical risk” to the safety of prison estates, with many prisons at capacity.

But she said measures currently being taken by the Scottish Government are not enough.

She will ask MSPs to pass measures for the emergency release of some prisoners to battle the “sudden and sharp rise” of the prison population.

If approved by Parliament, the measures under the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Act, would be one of several proposals by Constance.

The legislation comes into force on May 26 and if the legal test for emergency release is satisfied, the justice secretary will seek approval from MSPs within the following two weeks.

‘Sex offenders or domestic abusers won’t be released early’

Constance said early release would only apply to those serving sentences under four years, adding that public safety would be a “priority”.

“No one serving a sentence for sexual offences or domestic abuse will be released,” she added, “with a governor veto also available”.

She told the Scottish Parliament: “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.”

The justice secretary said she would look at legislation to bring back the automatic early release of some long-term prisoners.

And she said the Government was considering whether compassionate release could be used “more broadly in appropriate cases”.

She said she would also look at expanding the criteria for home detention.

Constance said: “The measures I’ve described will simply not have as large an impact as is necessary to avert a crisis.

“And be in no doubt, that is what we are facing.

“If our prisons are to remain functional and able to house the most dangerous offenders, we have no choice but to take urgent action to reduce pressure on the estate.”

It comes as ministers in England are preparing to extend an early release scheme for a second time, in a move which could see some criminals freed from jail up to 70 days before their release date in a bid to reduce prison numbers there.

‘Prisoners spending 22 hours a day in their cells’

In a letter to Constance earlier this month, seen by STV News, Scotland’s chief inspector of prisons said she has been repeatedly forced to raise issues with ministers about the state of the country’s jails.

She wrote: “I remain convinced that the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) neither have the buildings nor the resources or facilities necessary to offer all prisoners a humane approach to address offending, focus on recovery and reintegration and protect public safety.”

“I have seen the population numbers and demographics change over the last five years and, worryingly, the indicators suggest that the volume of people in custody is likely to rise further, exacerbating my concerns about the ability of the SPS to manage and achieve the humane rehabilitative regime we all seek.”

She said prisoners spending 22 hours a day locked in their cells had “all too often unfortunately become a norm”.

The SPS said the increase in Scotland – on top of an already high prison population – had not been anticipated.

A spokesperson for the SPS added: “This is putting significant pressure on our staff, our establishments, and those in our care.

“The complexity is driven by the high numbers of individuals who may require to be accommodated separately, for example because they are on remand, have links to serious and organised crime, or due to their offending history, all of which exacerbates the challenges faced.”

Sharon Dowey, deputy justice spokeswoman for the Tories, said “caution” should be taken when releasing the prisoners, adding: “It is crucial to ensure that individuals released from prison do not pose a risk to the public.

“It is not the time for the SNP to further their soft-touch approach to justice”.

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