Prison watchdog urges Scottish ministers to speed up bail reform

Scotland's chief inspector of prisons has urged ministers to speed up plans to overhaul the bail system, citing human rights concerns.

Wendy Sinclair-Gieben said she was concerned “too many people are being held in custody for prolonged periods of time, some of whom may not be found guilty of an offence”.

It comes as MSPs scrutinise the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill, which would require courts only to refuse bail to an accused person in the interests of public safety or if their release pending trial would present a "significant risk of prejudice to the interests of justice". The legislation seeks to ensure the use of custody for remand is a last resort.

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In written evidence submitted to Holyrood’s criminal justice committee, Ms Sinclair-Gieben said: “While I should like to note that HMIPS [His Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland] broadly support this Bill, and appreciate the considerable degree of work that is looking at alternatives to remand, my office would like to encourage the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service to expedite the plans, and also consider more immediate reforms to remand policy, including amending the inhibitory prison rules.

The Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill is being scrutinised by MSPs.
The Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill is being scrutinised by MSPs.
The Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill is being scrutinised by MSPs.

“During my tenure as HM Chief Inspector, I have been careful to ensure my office steers clear of hyperbole; to be proportionate and moderate in our critique; and to always recognise the hard work of justice professionals across the sector.

“However, I am concerned that too many people are being held in custody for prolonged periods of time, some of whom may not be found guilty of an offence.”

Ms Sinclair-Gieben said Covid had exacerbated the problem and Scotland now experiences consistently high levels of remand for longer periods.

She said: “Some individuals are being held as long in prison as those held on sentences, with prison rules providing less requirement or incentive to offer purposeful and rehabilitative activity to remands than is offered to convicted prisoners. That in turn can mean longer periods locked up behind their cell door and a greater risk of isolation, in addition to the risks to the security of their employment and housing that are inherent for anyone facing a lengthy period on remand, and who may therefore suffer even if they are ultimately acquitted.”

She said the high remand population added to overcrowding, impeding the ability of the Scottish Prison Service “to deliver a rehabilitative regime”. Ms Sinclair-Gieben said: “Upholding human rights becomes increasingly challenging.”

A Scottish Prison Service spokesman said its current population was 7,370, with 29.2 per cent on remand.

He said: “While it is not for us to determine who should be remanded to custody, the impact on our establishments is significant. We are managing an increasingly complex prison population. Certain demographics are unable to be located in certain establishments, or even in the same area within an establishment.

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“For example, whether someone in our care is a woman, a young person, on remand or serving a sentence, convicted of sexual offences, linked to serious and organised crime gangs, or has requested protection status, would all be considered in deciding where they should be accommodated.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We remain committed to taking action to address the use of remand where people are kept in custody when not convicted of any offence.

“The Bail and Release from Custody Bill is currently before Parliament, and seeks to respond to widespread concerns about too many people being held on remand by refocusing how custody can be used within the criminal justice system while ensuring public safety is protected.

“The Scottish Government has invested an additional £3.2 million in 2022 towards strengthening alternatives to remand, including further expansion of bail supervision. We have also commenced legislation to allow electronic monitoring of bail in Scotland providing a new option for courts considering imposing an alternative to remand. Over 200 people are now on electronically monitored bail.”



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