Justice secretary Humza Yousaf has said a three-quarter drop in prisoners being allowed to serve part of their sentence using an electronic tag is due to “risk aversion” following media scrutiny.
Rules surrounding home detention curfews (HDCs) were tightened last year to exclude those with a history of violence, knife crime or links to organised crime.
It followed the murder of Craig McClelland, 31, who was stabbed to death in Paisley by James Wright, who had been “unlawfully at large” for five months. Wright – who had 16 previous convictions, including two for knife crimes – had breached the terms of an HDC in February 2017 just days after being released from prison.
Mr Yousaf said he thought a 75 per cent drop in the use of HDC since curbs were introduced would be “temporary” and was due to negative coverage following Mr McClelland’s death.
The justice secretary appeared before MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee.
Asked by Green MSP John Finnie if the fall had been a “knee-jerk reaction”, Mr Yousaf said: “We live in a world in which organisations when there is a lot of media scrutiny, there is almost a natural instinct to be risk-averse. My hope – because I agree with John Finnie that HDC is a useful tool for re-integration – is that it is a temporary risk aversion.
“That is quite a dramatic decline. A 75 per cent reduction in HDC will undoubtedly contribute to prison numbers.”
Mr Yousaf said it was important to “learn lessons,” but he added: “As a Parliament, we have collectively agreed on much when it comes to HDC and approved various guidance and legislation previously. I would hope that whatever changes we do make, we can take the majority, if not all, of the Parliament with us.”
In November, Colin McConnell, chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS), said the number of HDCs being approved had fallen from 25-30 a week to seven a week.
It led Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, to warn the change could put extra pressure on the prison population.
Restrictions were tightened in October after a damning report from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) said 24 offenders had been unlawfully at large for more than four years.
HM Inspector of Constabulary Gill Imery said the processes around HDCs needed to be “significantly improved”.
Wright breached his HDC and was deemed to be unlawfully at large by the SPS ten days after his release from HMP Low Moss where he had been serving a 21-month sentence for a knife-related crime.
On 23 February last year, he removed his electronic tag and left his curfew address. Police Scotland were alerted the next day by the SPS that Wright was unlawfully at large.
However, he was still free on 23 July when he approached Mr McClelland, a father of three, in the street and asked him for a light before stabbing him twice.
Mr Yousaf told MSPs he is still considering whether to make it a criminal offence for anyone to remain unlawfully at large.