MSPs to vote on plans to free prisoners early after green light from committee

The regulations require final approval at Holyrood.

Plans to release more than 500 prisoners due to overcrowding will go before MSPs on Wednesday after narrowly passing through Holyrood’s Justice Committee.

Justice Secretary Angela Constance announced the move last month following a spike in inmate numbers and concerns about the capacity of the prison estate, with the head of the prison service saying it will “soon no longer be able to meet the basic rights of prisoners”.

When the proposals were put to the Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday, it took the casting vote of convener Audrey Nicoll to approve them, and the regulations will now face final approval on Wednesday afternoon.

Appearing before the committee, Ms Constance said the prison population on Wednesday stood at 8,294 – down from 8,348 on the day the plans were announced but still well above the target operating capacity of 8,007.

The Government has said there are around 550 prisoners eligible for early release under the proposals, and Ms Constance said almost 65% of them are otherwise due to be freed in the next 90 days.

Ms Constance was also clear that the emergency release – due to happen in four waves beginning at the end of this month – is one part of a plan that requires long-term thinking.

“Emergency release is absolutely necessary right now, but we can’t take our foot off the gas in bringing forward additional proposals over and above what I’ve already reported to Parliament,” she said.

Teresa Medhurst, chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), was stark in her evaluation of the current state of prisons.

“It is my professional view that the use of emergency release is appropriate and necessary to protect the security and good order of prisons and the safety and welfare of prisoners and those who work in our prisons,” she said.

“With the population increasing at such steep levels, I have indicated to the Cabinet Secretary that we will soon no longer be able to meet the basic rights of prisoners.”

This was not driven by a “single factor”, the prisons boss added, telling the committee of the complexity among the prison population.

Victim Support Scotland has previously raised concerns about how victims will be notified that the offender in their case is to be released early, and Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Russell Findlay put that issue to the Justice Secretary on Wednesday.

Mr Constance said: “We are relying on people who are not registered with the victim notification scheme to come forward and I hope as parliamentarians and (through) the work with our partners – whether that’s SPS – we can raise as much awareness as possible and we will do everything we can to support victims’ support organisations.

“I can’t give people information without knowing that we want it.”

Mr Findlay said the answers were “not good enough”, asking Ms Constance why she could not “admit” some victims will be told after their offender has already been released.

Meanwhile, Labour justice spokeswoman Pauline McNeil said she felt “backed into a corner” to vote for the regulations because of the crisis going on in prisons, but she decided to oppose them.

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