Justice secretary Humza Yousaf is considering the move after Social Work Scotland (SWS) warned there was a “major risk” the system could be “overwhelmed”.
It said it would “not be possible” for the 700,000 hours of unpaid work that is outstanding to be completed within the next 12 months.
“There is a major risk that Justice Social Work (JSW) will be overwhelmed, with serious consequences for the wider justice system,” the agency said. As many as 450,000 of the 700,000 outstanding hours could go uncompleted, SWS estimates.
With the Scottish Government has already released some prisoners early as a result of the pandemic, Mr Yousaf told MSPs on Holyrood’s justice committee he was considering if the number of hours criminals had been ordered to do would need to reduced on a “proportionate and limited basis”.
He explained it may be necessary to “reduce the volume of outstanding unpaid work hours in order to ensure that the justice system can continue to operate efficiently and effectively”. But he stressed: “Should this be necessary, a careful balance will need to be struck so that victims of crime, the wider public and the judiciary continue to be confident that community orders are an effective way for individuals to payback to their communities, while taking into account the challenges faced by JSW and the wider justice system.”
If unpaid work hours are cut, regulations will need to be laid in the Scottish Parliament after recess, Mr Yousaf said.
SWS had written to the justice secretary to raise concerns about the impact of the pandemic on unpaid work – a key part of many community payback orders (CPOs).
The body “concluded that to ensure the safety of staff and individuals subject to orders, and to maintain the viability of the community justice system, legislative action is necessary to reduce the backlog of unpaid work hours”.
SWS said the need for physical distancing would reduce the capacity for unpaid work “for the foreseeable future”.
It added “the majority of areas will be nable to deliver the accumulated backlog of unpaid work hours, let alone successfully manage the imposition of new orders”.
James Maybee, from SWS, said here was “an urgent need to proactively address the pressures faced by local authority justice social work services in managing the unpaid work”.