The number of under-18s in custody has fallen by 70 per cent in recent years but Scotland is still among the most prolific jailers in Europe.
The nation’s prison population has grown by about a third since the start of the new millennium, from 5803 in 2000/01 to 7647 today.
Scotland’s imprisonment rate is far in excess of similar sized nations such as Norway, Denmark and Finland. Prison populations in the Nordic countries are around 50-30 per cent smaller, according to figures by the Howard League for Penal Reform.
Prisoners are also still disproportionately drawn from Scotland’s poorest and most disadvantaged communities.
Research suggests those held in Scottish prisons are more likely than the wider population to suffer from mental health illnesses, have histories of drug and alcohol addiction and poor educational attainment.
The Scottish Government is now reexamining its approach to tackling offending, following on from an announcement earlier in the year that it would not progress plans for a new ‘super prison’ for women.
There is no doubt that we need to move away from an over-reliance on imprisonment in situations better dealt with by one of the increased numbers of community disposalsHoward League for Penal Reform
Consultation is also underway to further reduce the use of short-term prison sentences of six months or less.
But a previous Government recommendation that sheriffs should only use short-term sentences of less than three months as a last resort has had no impact on the overall size of the prison population.
“There are a number of factors that determine the size of the prison population, not least of which are sentencing decisions,” said a spokeswoman for the Howard League.
“There have been some successes in recent years, most notably the decline in the youth custody rate. However, the female prison population has increased by 120 per cent since 2000, and the numbers of those in prison on remand have increased by 50 per cent over the same period.”
The Scottish Parliament passed legislation in June to end automatic early release for prisoners jailed for more than four years.
When it takes effect, offenders will no longer be released after serving two-thirds of their sentence.
Instead, parole boards will be able to recommend that those serving long-term sentences spend their full term in jail.
There are currently 1028 prisoners in Scotland serving life sentences.
“Once it takes full effect, recent legislation that will change the regime of early release for long term prisoners is likely to increase the size of the prison population,” a spokeswoman for the Howard League added.
Justice secretary Michael Matheson has talked of Scotland becoming a “world leader” in the way it deals with female offenders, and believes community-based punishments can be more effective than sending increasing numbers of people to jail.
“I am also very clear is that for those individuals that do need to go to prison, then prison will be there,” he said in an interview in March.
The use of community-based punishments is backed by prison reformers.
“The Howard League welcomes the recent announcement from the Scottish Government to review the use of short term prison sentences,” a spokeswoman said.
“The presumption against custodial sentences of three months or less has been in place for almost five years and has failed to have any significant impact on the size of the prison population. The presumption was introduced at that low level despite Scottish Government attempts to set it at a more meaningful level of six months imprisonment. We agree that it is time to look at it again, in conjunction with other evidence about effective sentencing, including what we have learned from the use of Community Payback Orders.
“Short prison sentences rarely address the causes of crime and disrupt family life, employment and housing arrangements – all factors that reduce the risk of someone reoffending on release.
There is no doubt that we need to move away from an over-reliance on imprisonment in situations better dealt with by one of the increased number of community disposals, particularly for less serious crimes. Only then are we likely to see a significant downward trend in size of Scotland’s prison population.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “The latest figures show that Scotland’s prison population is falling and we have seen a 70 per cent drop in the number of under 18s in custody between 2007 and 2014.
“We are taking a bold and ambitious approach to tackling offending in Scotland, including a radical shake up of the way Scotland treats female offenders and efforts to reduce the use of ineffective short-term prison sentences.
“With reconviction rates in Scotland at a 16-year low and while recorded crime is at its lowest level in 41 years, the evidence shows our approach is working. However, Scotland currently has one of the highest prison populations per capita in Western or Northern Europe and we’re doing what we can to change this, so imprisonment is the option of last resort.
“Prison will always be the right place for certain offenders. However, evidence shows that short custodial sentences do nothing to stop reoffending in our communities. That is why we are focused on ensuring robust community sentences are available, and why we are consulting on new proposals to strengthen the presumption against short sentences.
“Our new approach to dealing with female offenders sees a focus towards custody in the community, with plans already unveiled for a small national prison alongside five smaller community-based custodial units across the country.
“We have also made a series of commitments to improve support for people leaving prison, and reduce re-offending, including flexible release dates.”