MSPs back Government’s emergency prisoner release plans

MSPs have backed Scottish Government plans to release prisoners early to ease pressures on the system.

Justice Secretary Angela Constance announced the move last month following a spike in inmate numbers and concerns about the capacity of the prison estate, with the head of the prison service saying it will “soon no longer be able to meet the basic rights of prisoners”.

The proposals were passed by 66 votes to 47, with five abstentions, after being narrowly backed by Holyrood’s Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday.

Angela Constance
The Justice Secretary spoke in favour of the regulations (Jane Barlow/PA)

Appearing before the committee, Ms Constance said the prison population stood at 8,294 – down from 8,348 on the day the plans were announced but still well above the target operating capacity of 8,007.

The Government has said there are around 550 prisoners eligible for early release under the proposals, and Ms Constance said almost 65% of them are otherwise due to be freed in the next 90 days.

Ms Constance was also clear that the emergency release – due to happen in four waves beginning at the end of this month – is one part of a plan that requires long-term thinking.

Speaking in the chamber on Wednesday, Ms Constance said: “That recent sharp an unanticipated rise of 400 more prisoners in the space of a few months now places the security of prisons and the safety of prisoners and staff at significant risk.”

There have been concerns about the notification of victims, with those not registered with the victim notification scheme having to contact one of four victims support organisations to find out if the offender in their case is among those released early.

“Many victims of serious crimes will first hear about this on tonight’s news, this will cause fear and anxiety,” said Scottish Tory justice spokesman Russell Findlay.

“Prisoners being set free will have committed serious crimes, including violence.”

Mr Findlay added: “The Government likes to take the moral high ground by preaching about smart justice, but it is not smart, it is weak.

“The emergency mass release will result in more crime, that’s what happened the last time (during the pandemic).

“We cannot support this and to do so would be to fail victims and to risk encouraging this Government to believe this is the new normal.”

Ms Constance said “I very much recognise the public and victims’ concerns”, but added: “I want to emphasise that protecting the public remains my absolute priority.”

That is why, she said, only those serving a sentence of four years or under who were due for release within the next six months will be released.

Those sentenced for domestic violence, terrorism or sexual crimes will also be excluded.

Scottish Labour also voted against the plans, with the party’s justice spokeswoman Pauline McNeill describing the expedited emergency process as “unsatisfactory” as well as saying the rising population in Scotland’s prisons was “known about for some time” before the powers were invoked.

Scottish Prison Service (SPS) chief executive Teresa Medhurst also appeared before the committee on Wednesday, where she laid out a stark picture of the state of the country’s prisons.

“It is my professional view that the use of emergency release is appropriate and necessary to protect the security and good order of prisons and the safety and welfare of prisoners and those who work in our prisons,” she said.

“With the population increasing at such steep levels, I have indicated to the Cabinet Secretary that we will soon no longer be able to meet the basic rights of prisoners.”

This was not driven by a “single factor”, the prisons boss added, telling the committee of the complexity among the prison population.

Ms McNeill said after the vote: “This is being rushed through without the required level of detail over which prisoners will be released and without the full support of victims’ organisations.

“Scottish Labour is concerned that the cohort of prisoners will include offenders who are serving up to four years, which will include serious offenders.

“This sticking-plaster SNP solution will do nothing to tackle the causes of overcrowding and could put us back right to where we are today – considering more emergency releases – in just a few months’ time.

“Releasing prisoners unexpectedly in this way places an unjustifiable burden on local authorities and has the potential to lead to high reoffending rates for ex-prisoners, putting communities at risk.

“Ultimately, the Scottish Government has broken its fundamental promise to victims – that perpetrators serve their full punishment.

“Rather than opting for a sticking plaster that causes distress to victims and increases the chance of reoffending, the SNP must address the root causes of overcrowding and show that they have a longer-term sustainable plan for the changing prison population.”