There have been a series of initiatives in the past few years, primarily aimed at improving the efficiency of the criminal court system as part of summary justice reform. These are likely to have contributed to the observed increases in the prison population in the short to medium term, and include:
- Increased sentencing powers
- Maximum sentence for sheriff solemn cases increased from three to five years (May 2004)
- Maximum sentence for sheriff summary cases increased from three to 12 months, with additional penalties for failing to comply with bail conditions (December 2007)
- Increased powers for Justice of the Peace courts to deal with a wider range of road traffic offences (March 2008).
- Reforms to bail procedures
- Judges to provide reasons for granting/refusing bail
- 'Exceptional circumstances' test for bail where an accused in solemn proceedings for a violent, sexual, or drug trafficking offence has a previous similar solemn conviction
- Attitude of prosecutor no longer restricts the power of the court so the court can now refuse bail even if the prosecutor does not oppose bail (December 2007).
- Changes in public prosecution policy
- Revised Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service ( COPFS) policy on knife crime with a presumption of prosecution in solemn courts and opposition to bail for repeat offenders (June 2006)
- Revised COPFS case marking guidelines with a presumption in favour of action and an outcome focused approach to increase likelihood of conviction. Where court action is appropriate, this will take place in the lowest appropriate forum (March 2008).
- Legal Aid reform
- Payments to solicitors changed to encourage early pleas (June 2008).
In addition, changes in police activity, both in the short and long term, may affect the prison population, although the link here is less direct.
However, other changes in policy and practice, particularly in terms of alternatives to custody, may also impact on sentencing patterns and affect the prison population in the longer term. In particular, the Scottish Prisons Commission report Scotland's choice made strong recommendations regarding greater use of alternatives to custody, a position which has been endorsed in the Scottish Government paper Protecting Scotland's communities: fair, fast and flexible justice. If such policies are implemented, the observed trends in sentencing behaviour will alter in future, and this will need to be taken into account in future prison population projections.