Fewer court proceedings as crime falls

Average prison sentence length rises 26% over decade.

Cabinet Secretary for Justice Michael Matheson has responded to official figures showing a continued fall in criminal court proceedings to their lowest level since comparable records began in 1970.

The Criminal Proceedings in Scotland bulletin for 2016-17 shows an 8% reduction over the last year in both the number of people proceeded against in court (107,338), and those subsequently convicted (92,334).

Previously published National Statistics on recorded crime for 2016-17 revealed this had fallen by more than a third over the last decade to a 43-year-low.

While falling crime has been accompanied by fewer prison sentences (16,762 in 2007-08 and 12,690 in 2016-17), the proportion of all offenders jailed has remained steady – 14% in 2016-17 compared to 13% in 2007-08 – while the average length of prison sentences, excluding life sentences, is 26% higher than a decade ago.

The proportion of people sentenced to serve a community sentence has risen over the last decade, from 13% of all those convicted to 20%, notably with the imposition of community payback orders that can both support individuals to reduce the likelihood of their re-offending, and also benefit local communities with unpaid work.

The Justice Secretary said:

“Scotland’s courts continue to sentence those who pose significant risks to public safety to imprisonment, with more than a third (37%) of those convicted of sexual offences last year being jailed compared to just under a quarter (24%) in 2007-08.

“The Scottish Prison Service works every hour of every day to support the rehabilitation of those serving long-term sentences in custody – helping to reduce their likelihood of reoffending and so contributing to keeping crime down and communities safe. We can help hard-working prison staff to do that most effectively by enabling the use of more robust community sentences for other men and women who might otherwise be given short and very often ineffective periods in custody.”

Commenting on the conviction rate for rape and attempted rape, Mr Matheson added:

“While the relatively low conviction rate for rape reflects, in part, the challenging evidential requirements to prove this crime, the Government will continue to seek to strengthen the law where possible, and how such cases are dealt with. 

“Since last April judges are required to direct juries in certain sexual offence cases on how to consider evidence – specifically explaining why a victim may not physically resist their attacker, nor report an offence immediately. Our on-going Jury research is also examining how juries reach decisions and use the ‘not proven’ verdict.

“As well as ensuring the justice system has the resources needed to pursue perpetrators and to better support victims, our preventative work includes education on the pervasive nature of gender-based violence – an issue on which people across society, in families, schools and the wider community, must continue to speak out against.”


Read the National Statistics bulletin Criminal Proceedings in Scotland, 2016-17 in the Publications section of the Scottish Government website.

The conviction rate for rape and attempted rate is highly susceptible to annual fluctuations due to the relatively small numbers involved.  It is not possible to say whether the change in the latest year is part of any longer term trend with previous years’ showing similar fluctuations on occasion.

The Scottish Government strengthened and modernised the law through the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act passed in 2009. The Crown Office deploys specialist prosecutors to ensure these cases are given the best available consideration and preparation to help ensure the best possible chances of successful prosecutions.  Police Scotland established a National Rape Taskforce and a Rape & Sexual Crime External Advisory Group which operates across the service to continue to inform and improve rape investigation.

The changes to judicial directions for certain sexual offence trials which came into force in April 2017 aim to challenge any pre-conceived notions that jurors may have about how a person “should” react when they are the victim of a sexual offence.  A high-profile public information campaign challenging wider public attitudes to the issue – #ijustfroze – was also launched last year, commissioned by Rape Crisis Scotland with Scottish Government funding.

The Scottish Government has also commissioned research into how juries reach decisions. The work, which is being carried out over two years, will consider jury size, decision-making processes, majorities needed and Scotland’s three-verdict system – gathering evidence to inform future reform of the criminal justice system in Scotland. Read more from the September 2017 announcement of the research team.

An additional £20 million (2015-18) Scottish Government funding to tackle all forms of violence against women and girls included £1.85 million to Rape Crisis Scotland to enhance the support available for survivors of sexual violence. This funding has enabled an additional advocacy support worker in each rape crisis centre in Scotland, and the establishment of rape crisis centres in Orkney and Shetland.

Scotland’s promotion of robust community-based sentencing, including the introduction of community payback orders, has contributed to a reduction in reconviction rates over the last decade to an 18-year low – contributing in turn to the large reduction in overall recorded crime, down by 38% since 2007-08, to help keep communities safe. Evidence shows community sentences are more effective than short prison terms, with those released from a custodial sentence of 12 months or less being reconvicted almost twice as often as those undertaking community payback orders.


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