Under pressure from stand-in Scottish Tory leader Jamie Greene at First Minister’s Questions, the SNP leader did not answer whether she believed the policy being introduced by her Government was “morally right”.
Mr Greene, replacing Douglas Ross who had to drop out of the question session due to a “seized” throat, focused on what his party have labelled Scotland’s “soft-touch” justice system.
The justice spokesperson highlighted Scottish Government plans to cut the time served by prisoners to a third of their original sentence before automatic release.
He said: “I asked the First Minister a simple question. I didn’t hear an answer to that.
"She says she doesn’t have a view, clearly, but she used to have a view.
"The First Minister in 2015 said, I quote, ‘our objective remains to end the policy of automatic early release as soon as we are able to’. So what’s changed First Minister?”
Ms Sturgeon accused the Scottish Conservatives of “hypocrisy”, highlighting their opposition to Scottish Government plans in 2016 to end automatic release for all long-term prisoners.
She said: “I find the Tory hypocrisy on this utterly breath-taking.
"Back in 2016, this SNP Government reformed release arrangements for prisoners serving long-term sentences. What that means was that the most dangerous prisoners no longer received automatic early release.
"That ended a system that was introduced by a Tory UK Government in 1993.
"When we did that in 2016, the Tories voted against that change.”
The First Minister’s official spokesperson was pressed to answer the question on whether Ms Sturgeon’s backing for the policy meant she also believed it was morally right.
Speaking to journalists, he also highlighted what he called Tory “hypocrisy”, and said: “The various checks and balances that are in place in terms of the wider policy, the wider policy as you know is put in place because of the wide evidence, there is a whole range of expert opinion and evidence and studies on this that reoffending is reduced.
"You get away from a revolving door of reoffending. The First Minister has been consistently clear anytime this issue comes up that prison will always be the right place for the most serious offenders.
"Nothing is going to change that and, equally, she always makes it clear that when it comes to sentencing it is the courts that impose sentences and politicians shouldn’t be meddling in the deliberations of the judiciary.”
In the chamber, Ms Sturgeon also confirmed that seven of the eight prisoners given temporary release while having the wrong risk score are still in jail.
An IT glitch led to 1,317 risk scores in the system used by the prison service and social workers not matching the correct risk level identified by professionals, 285 of which were “open cases”.
Mr Greene said the “blunder” meant the Government still did not know whether those released with the wrong risk level went on to reoffend.
The First Minster went on to say the decision to release prisoners, temporarily or permanently, was not “based solely” on risk scores.