The time is right to assess the use of prisons in Scotland, a Scottish Government consultation document has said.
Ministers are looking for views from the public in a 12-week consultation on the reform of bail and custody use in Scotland, with a view to increasing chances for rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders.
The consultation puts forward a number of proposals which could feature in future legislation – due to be laid before Holyrood in the first year of the parliamentary term – including explicitly requiring a court to consider electronic monitoring before it refuses bail, increasing the power of Scottish ministers to release “groups of prisoners in exceptional circumstances” and improving throughcare standards for offenders leaving prison.
The report, which also detailed more than 30 questions for respondents, said: “We believe the time is right to reassess the role that prisons and the use of imprisonment should play in a modern and progressive Scotland.
“A justice system which more effectively addresses the reasons why people offend and provides greater opportunities for rehabilitation benefits all of us and will lead to fewer victims in the future.”
Justice Secretary Keith Brown said: “Our overarching aim for the justice system in Scotland is to improve public safety, support victims and reduce rates of victimisation.
“The proposals in this consultation support that aim. We cannot simply keep using imprisonment to address wider societal harms. Indeed, in some cases such use can exacerbate the harm.
“This consultation asks important questions about how custody should be used in Scotland now and in the future, with a focus on reducing crime and reoffending and keeping people safe.”
Scottish ministers do not currently have the power to release certain groups of prisoners if it is found they cannot be housed within the prison estate, such as is the case in other parts of the UK.
During the pandemic, that power was built into emergency legislation, in a bid to protect from outbreaks within prisons.
But the report points out that the power would not be available for a reason other than Covid-19.
“Should it ever be necessary to release a group of prisoners in response to exceptional circumstances which put the security and good order of a prison or prisons at risk (such as another public health emergency, or catastrophic damage to a prison due to fire or flooding, resulting in it being unsafe for habitation or overcrowding), the powers under this Act would not be available,” the report said.
It added: “It is essential that our prisons are safe and well run – to ensure the well-being of prisoners and staff.
“In circumstances where prisons become unsafe and put those living and working there at risk, it is the duty of Government to act to restore good order and enable the prison authorities to manage the situation effectively.”
The government also proposes a change to the point where prisoners on short sentences could be released, with a suggestion in the document this could come one-third of the way through their sentence as part of a more “flexible” system, provided they meet certain criteria and are subject to release conditions.
Scottish Tory justice spokesman Jamie Greene described the idea as “reckless”.
“If the SNP truly wanted to do something for victims, they would back the Scottish Conservatives’ calls to end automatic early release.
“Instead, they are intent on letting rapists and killers back on our streets after serving only a small fraction of their sentence.
“The SNP Government must stop stacking the odds in criminals’ favour and start putting victims first.”
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