Public safety risk fears over SNP plan for early release of long-serving prisoners

Scotland’s prison population has risen by 13 per cent since the start of 2023

A charity dedicated to helping victims of crime has demanded answers from the Scottish Government over new plans for the early release of long-term prisoners.

Kate Wallace, chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said the organisation was “really eager to understand how public safety will be ensured” if hundreds of inmates are released from the nation’s overcrowded jails after serving two-thirds of their sentence.

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Up to 550 prisoners were already due to be released this month, as part of efforts to ease pressure on Scottish Prison Service (SPS) staff and facilities.

Those being released had 180 days or less to serve from a sentence of under four years.

Now, the Government has announced a consultation on plans to also release longer term prisoners after they have served two-thirds of their sentence.

Documents show that if the measure had been implemented at the end of May, around 320 people would have been released on non-parole licence immediately.

It would be introduced retroactively for all those sentenced on or after February 1, 2016, as well as to all those sentenced in future, resulting in an immediate release of some prisoners and a sustained reduction of between 3.5 per cent and 4.1 per cent of the prison population, the Government said. It added that the proposals would not apply to those who are serving an extended sentence for violent or sexual offences.

Ms Wallace said: “It is unsurprising given the current Emergency Early Release of prisoners that changes are being proposed to sentences of long-term prisoners.

“Given that longer sentences are handed down for more serious crimes, we are really eager to understand how public safety will be ensured.

“However welcome individual risk assessments are, Victim Support Scotland would urge for investment in licence conditions to make these more robust and to help victims live safely and without fear in their communities.

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“Although provision is made for information sharing through the Victim Notification Scheme (VNS), this still requires a significant overhaul. Victims often tell us about how traumatising and complicated the VNS process is. 

“We are aware of outstanding recommendations from an independent review published in May 2023 – already over a year ago. We continue to wait for a response from the Government on how they will dramatically improve the VNS.

“We note the Government states that public safety is paramount, but once again the focus of this policy is on prison populations. We welcome further detail on how this will be put into practice, and how public safety can be balanced with the safe release of long term prisoners.”

A Scottish Conservative spokesperson said: “This is yet another broken promise from the SNP to victims of crime. Nicola Sturgeon promised to end automatic early release for all criminals, but never fulfilled that pledge.

“Now the SNP want to release dangerous criminals who have served just two-thirds of their sentence which if enacted would pose a serious risk to public safety.

“The fact that these plans are even being proposed is systematic of the SNP’s failure to invest in our prison estate which is crumbling at the seams. 

“The needs of criminals have yet again been put above the needs of victims in the SNP’s justice system.”

The initiative would represent the return to a policy that existed before February 2016.

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Currently, prisoners are eligible to be released under licence six months from the end of their sentence.

It comes after long-awaited plans for new prisons in Glasgow and Inverness have been hit be repeated delays in recent years.

In Scotland, the prison population has risen by around 13 per cent since the start of 2023, with a particularly sharp rise over a two month period between March and May 2024.

The trend has been put down to a reduction in the backlog of court cases, increases in average sentence lengths imposed for certain offences, more serious sexual offence cases being prosecuted in the court, and an increase in the time individuals are held on remand.

As well as the overall population increasing, the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has reported greater challenges managing serious and organised crime groups, substance abuse among prisoners, including new psychoactive substances, and increasingly complex challenges relating to health, mental health and social care needs.

Under the new proposals, the Government said those released would be subject to licence conditions, supervision, and ultimately recall to custody.

They would also be subject to individualised risk assessment ahead of release, with licence conditions reflecting the conclusions of that assessment and being set on the recommendations of the Parole Board.

Victims would continue to have the right to receive certain information about a prisoner in their case, including their release dates, and to make representations under the Victim Notification Scheme.

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Justice Secretary Angela Constance said: "Supervision is a commonly used element of custodial sentences - as part of efforts to prepare individuals nearing their return to the community to settle and ultimately to not re-offend.

"Our proposals would bring forward the point at which long-term prisoners are released so individuals spend more time under licence conditions in the community before the end of their sentence.

"Individuals would continue to serve their sentence but do so in the community under strict supervision, which can improve reintegration back into society and reduce the risk of re-offending.

"We are considering these measures to find a better balance between the time spent in custody and time supervised in the community, particularly following the recent increase in the prison population when Scotland already has one of the highest in Western Europe .

"Public safety will be paramount. Release under licence conditions means strict community supervision and specific support in place informed by robust individual risk assessments of prisoners.

"These measures would be introduced through legislation, requiring debate and the approval of Parliament. I invite people to share their views."

Consultation documents state: “A longer period of time in the community can allow for a person to be more effectively tested and monitored to address certain identified risks. Additional time may also help to better support their successful reintegration and reduce their risk of future reoffending, in line with the aims of the Vision for Justice.”

The consultation will close on August 19 .

The plans come as the Scottish Government released statistics showing an increase in the re-conviction rate in 2020/21 compared to the previous year.

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The figures show a 2.6 percentage point rise to 26.9 per cent, while the average number of re-convictions per offender increased by 8 per cent from 0.41 to 0.44.

Despite the recent increase, however, re-conviction rates have been on a downward trend in the past decade, falling from 29.6 per cent in 2011/12.

Men were more likely to be re-convicted than women, while offenders who committed crimes of dishonesty were most likely to do so again.

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