After a number of years of relative stability, the average prison population has increased over the past year. Scotland currently has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe, with around 144 per 100,000 of the population incarcerated.
The most recent projections suggest that, over the next 12 months, population levels are likely to average around 8,000. Scottish Government officials are working with the Scottish Prison Service to consider the immediate issues that are associated with that. In addition, we have committed to take action to reduce the numbers of people entering prison for short-term periods. In the budget, we confirmed additional funding to local authorities to increase the availability of alternatives to remand. We have also increased funding over recent years to support the availability of community sentences.
Once provisions in the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 come into force from April this year, we will also bring forward the necessary secondary legislation to extend the current presumption against short sentences from three months to 12 months.
“committed to reducing the use of imprisonment”.—[
, 12 June 2018; S5W-16923.]
Fast forward six months from that parliamentary answer and the average prison population is up by around 300, meaning that the number of prisons operating at or over capacity has more than doubled. Prisons are jam packed and staff are warning of the impact that that is having.
The Scottish Government has said that it has acted on “almost all” the recommendations of the decade-old Scottish Prisons Commission, but the experts then were critical of a prison population of just over 7,000 and wanted to see a reduction to 5,000. As the cabinet secretary has confirmed, the number of prisoners is now 8,000. Can he therefore explain the reason for that failure?
Let me in turn thank Liam McArthur for the general tone of his question. I know that he takes the issue seriously.
Around the chamber there is quite a lot of consensus that we do not want the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe—it is not a statistic to be proud of.
There are complex reasons for the rise in the prison population—one relates to the types of offences that we see, for example. There are more and more sexual offences coming to our courts, and more people are being found guilty and going into our prisons. There are a number of reasons for that, which I will not go into. However, the behaviour of the judiciary must also be taken into account. For people who are given long sentences—particularly life sentences—the punishment part is now substantially longer than it was a decade ago. There are also more recent trends. At this morning’s meeting of the Justice Committee, we talked about the changes in home detention curfew. Of course, the less that that is used, the more the prison population rises.
There is a lot that we will do to tackle the issue. If it passes through Parliament—on which I will look to the Liberal Democrats for support—the presumption against short sentences of 12 months or less could be a significant tool to help us to reduce the prison population.
I turn to the women’s estate. Last year, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons for Scotland, David Strang, warned that because the new female prison estate would hold only 230 prisoners,
“much work is still required to reduce the number of women in custody ahead of the new prison’s opening in 2020”.
The female prisoner population currently stands at 381. It is little wonder, therefore, that organisations such as the Howard League Scotland, Sacro and others are so concerned.
Will the cabinet secretary now confirm that the timetable has slipped and that three of the community custody units will not even be started by the 2020 deadline initially set by his predecessor for the completion of the new estate? Will he confirm how many women will benefit from the new estate in 2021?
I will look to provide the member with fuller detail as a follow-up, as I do not have it all in front of me.
However, the Scottish Government is absolutely committed to learning lessons from the variety of reviews that have taken place of the specific issue of female offending. We know that women offend and are imprisoned for very complex reasons that can often be quite different from those that apply to the male offending population. Our plan for CCUs right across Scotland is taking shape. We have planning permission for units in Glasgow and Dundee, which is an important step forward.
From the numbers and the data that I have seen, the presumption against short sentences will have a disproportionately positive impact on the female offending population in comparison with the male offending population. However, that is just one measure that we wish to implement. We have to look at the male offending population as well—of course, men make up the vast majority of the prison population—to see what radical measures we need to introduce to reduce the prison population. It is important that we, as a society, do not get comfortable—and we, as a Government, certainly are not comfortable—with just imprisoning people and seeing the prison population continuing to rise.
Yes. I was interested to hear Rory Stewart’s commitment. In some ways, it goes further in that we would have a presumption against short sentences whereas he is talking about banning short sentences. The United Kingdom model relates to sentences of up to six months whereas, under our model, there would be a presumption against short sentences of 12 months, so there are differences. However, Rory Stewart and I agree that it is inarguable that the data and the empirical evidence show that a community payback order or other alternative to custody will do a lot more for the individual in terms of reducing offending and rehabilitation than a short custodial sentence would do. I hope that the chamber can get behind that.
My party would have concerns about plans to reduce the prison population if the practicalities of doing that were not taken into account. How can the cabinet secretary seek more use of community sentences when the current statistics show that a third of such sentences are never completed and that a third of work placements fail to start within the required seven days?
The member makes the very valid point that we need to ensure that the public, politicians, and I, as the cabinet secretary, have confidence in our community payback orders. Despite some of the difficulties and flaws in the current regime that he has pointed out, the evidence speaks for itself. Someone who is serving a short sentence is twice as likely to reoffend than someone who is on a community payback order. The evidence is indisputable. The UK Government has acknowledged that, given its proposals to ban short sentences of six months or less, except for violent and sexual offences.
If all the political parties are on board and agree that the prison population and the rate per head are far too high, let us put our minds together and think about what other radical steps we can take. It is not only ourselves that we need to take on this journey; as the member’s question alludes to, we also need to take with us members of the public, who might not consider alternatives to custody to be a particularly robust sentence disposal at the moment. There is a lot of work for the Government to do but, equally, there is a role for all of us to play collectively.
I thank the cabinet secretary for being as candid as he has been, which contradicts the response that I got when I raised these issues in the summer. There are consequences of prisons running at above capacity, particularly in relation to double-bunking in cells. How many prisoners are in cells that are operating beyond their designed capacity in so-called double-bunking conditions?
I do not have the exact figures to hand, but I will provide them to Daniel Johnson.
I would go further on the member’s point: overcrowded prisons—prisons that have more people in them than they were designed to have—have an effect on rehabilitation. There are only so many members of staff who can take prisoners on rehabilitative programmes. Overcrowding also has an effect on morale in a prison. For example, it will affect the amount of time that prisoners have out of their cells. Frustrations can build up and there can then be issues for staff safety. Therefore, there is a range of reasons why we do not want our prisons to be running above their designed capacity.
We will do a lot to tackle the issue, such as introducing the presumption against short sentences and other measures. However, if we want to make the change, which might take 10, 15 or 20 years, as was the case in Finland and the Netherlands, which successfully made the change, we will need to work collectively and take the public with us on the journey. We need to put the appropriate safeguards in place and look for some radical solutions to how we reduce the prison population.
The cabinet secretary enjoys cross-party support in looking for robust alternatives to custody. There are a range of options, including restriction of liberty orders, drug treatment and testing orders, community payback orders, sexual offence prevention orders and, most recently, home detention curfews. All those measures require an active role for criminal justice social work. I noted carefully what the cabinet secretary said but, nonetheless, the local authority budget is being cut. Is that compatible with his fine words?
It is compatible because the £100 million for that work is protected in the budget, as was outlined by my colleague Derek Mackay, so the resource is available.
However, I do not get away from the central point that, if we are going to use alternatives to custody, they have to be resourced. Actually, from an economic point of view, they are cheaper, so there is an economic argument why we should want to use them. That should not be the primary argument, of course. The primary argument should be about public safety, the reduction in reoffending and the rehabilitative nature of alternatives to custody, but there is an economic argument to be made.
I will continue that conversation with local authorities and third sector organisations. I note that my colleague Derek Mackay is in the chamber and I am sure that he was listening carefully to the remarks that the member made about adequate resourcing.
The cabinet secretary will be aware of the importance of rehabilitation when it comes to prisoners maintaining contact with their families—something that itself has consequences for prison numbers in the future. Given the extreme difficulty and expense that island families face in visiting prisoners, what can the Scottish Government do to be of help to families in this situation in Scotland’s islands?
The member raises a very good point. I am, of course, aware of these discussions from my previous ministerial role as Minister for Transport and the Islands. If the member would like, I can give him information on the assisted prison visits scheme, which helps those who have to travel a distance with the travel costs.
Making more use of technology is also hugely important, and the Scottish Prison Service is doing that. Of course, it does not replace face-to-face, physical visits, but nonetheless it can play an important role in family contact. A range of work is being done. If the member would like, I will furnish him with further details in writing.