Plan to release prisoners early because of overcrowding makes mockery of justice – Scotsman comment

Justice Secretary Angela Constance reveals that urgent action is necessary if prisons ‘are to remain functional and able to house the most dangerous offenders’

On April 25, Justice Secretary Angela Constance published a new paper, called “Justice in an independent Scotland”, the 13th in the Scottish Government’s “Building a New Scotland” series. Yesterday, three weeks later, she told MSPs that the prison service of the actual, real Scotland was heading towards a “crisis” of overcrowding so great that some inmates may have to be released early.

“If our prisons are to remain functional and able to house the most dangerous offenders,” she said, “we have no choice but to take urgent action...” Constance reported that multiple prisons were “essentially full” and that, in response, the Scottish Government was planning to free prisoners serving sentences of less than four years.

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If MSPs agree, ministers will be allowed to order this in “emergency situations” from May 26. While she said no one guilty of sexual offences or domestic abuse would be released, she did not mention a similar restriction on violent prisoners.

Prison overcrowding has reached a crisis level (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)Prison overcrowding has reached a crisis level (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)
Prison overcrowding has reached a crisis level (Picture: Danny Lawson/PA)

It’s hard not to speculate that if Constance had been less distracted by her independence paper, she might have been able to address this problem somewhat sooner, making everything less rushed and less urgent.

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Government plans to release prisoners serving sentences under four years

Governments are supposed to plan ahead to make sure there is sufficient capacity for those people deemed worthy of a prison sentence by our courts. The fact that the UK Government has a similar problem – partly because of backlogs dating back to the Covid pandemic – is neither here nor there. It’s Constance’s job to stay on top of the situation, and just because other ministers have similarly failed to rise to challenging circumstances is no excuse.

Victims, their families and the public at large will want reassurances that any violent prisoners released will be monitored and recalled to prison if necessary. There are also serious concerns about the rehabilitation of prisoners. Will this simply stop for those shown the door? That would be unacceptable.

Prison sentences are designed to punish the guilty and deter crime, but also to keep the public safe. If the SNP can’t do that, they are failing in the first duty of government – as well as making a mockery of justice.