Holyrood’s justice committee yesterday announced an investigation into Scottish Government spending on prisons and custody alternatives in the wake of the suspension of the Throughcare scheme, moves to reduce the number of prisoners serving short sentences, and concerns about the rise in remand prisoners.
Committee chair, Scottish Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell, said the review was vital to ensure that Scottish prisons and custody services were properly funded.
She said: “It’s clear with the announcement last week on Throughcare and the record high-levels of incarnation that the prison system is under pressure. The Scottish Government has made a range of commitments to improve our post-conviction criminal justice system, but are these commitments prioritised with budget spending?
"To allow the justice committee to hold the Scottish Government to account, we need to gather the views of those involved with the system, before asking some probing questions.”
The Scottish Prison Service admitted last week it would be suspending its Throughcare service due to the “significant challenges it is facing” and all seconded staff were moved back to regular prison officer duties.
The prison reform charity, Howard League Scotland, said the move showed that prisons were under “immense” strain and pointed to its figures which found that, as of 12 July, there were 8,190 people jailed in Scotland, although the maximum capacity of the Scottish prison estate was about 7,564 places.
Holyrood’s justice committee has itself previously raised concerns about the number of prisoners held on remand which have risen by 40 per cent since 2016. And the increased scrutiny also comes after legislative changes which aim to reduce the number of prisoners serving sentences of less than 12 months, and the consequent increase in the use of custody alternatives.
Commenting on the committee's call for evidence on prison and alternatives to custody spending, Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur said: “I have uncovered spiralling rates of self-harm, people waiting up to 42 weeks to start basic skills courses and that prisons are full to bursting, with Barlinnie almost 500 over capacity.
“On the SNP’s watch, the population has spiralled to such an extent that bosses have had to shut down a critical rehabilitation service altogether. This is bad for prisoners and the communities they return to. It’s why Liberal Democrats have already announced plans to end the emergency in our prisons and make community-based alternatives more robust and credible.
“The crisis in Scotland’s prisons demands Parliament’s attention.”
Scottish Labour's justice spokesperson Pauline McNeill also welcomed the review, and added: “You can’t do community justice on the cheap. We need a robust and well-funded system that targets the underlying causes of offending and that the public have confidence in.”
The justice committee is already gathering information on spending ahead of considering the Scottish Government’s draft 2020/21 budget. MSPs will now seek views on budgets provided to public, third and voluntary sectors who provide services to prisons as well as longer-term challenges and the financial requirements to tackle issues such as staffing levels in prisons, over-crowding, drug use, safety and security of staff and prisoners, the use of the open estate and an ageing prison population.
Views on how to achieve a rebalancing over the longer-term in expenditure on prisons and that of community-based alternatives are also being sought.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Scotland’s reconviction rate remains at its lowest in 20 years and we continue to strengthen the provision of alternatives to custody to help keep crime down and communities safe.
“We are investing £9.5 million a year more on community justice services such as community sentences and electronic monitoring compared to 2015-16 to support rehabilitation and reduce re-offending – having protected ring-fenced more than £100 million for Justice Social Work in 2019-20.
“In addition, we are investing just over £11.6 million in third sector organisations supporting community justice and criminal justice social work services in 2019-20, including £3.4 million to support mentoring services for men and women leaving custody.
“As part of the Spending Review process, justice and other priorities for Scotland are kept under review with a clear focus on public value and improving outcomes aligned to the National Performance Framework.
“We value the work done by the staff of the Scottish Prison Service and never take for granted the good order that is maintained in Scotland’s prisons. Additional financial provision has already been made available to help the SPS meet a range of cost pressures and we will keep the budget position under review throughout the financial year.”