Scottish Prison Population Statistics 2020-21

An Official Statistics Publication for Scotland 23 June 2022.

Covid related public health measures in the justice system had rapid and substantial impacts on the prison population in 2020-21, according to Official Statistics published by the Chief Statistician today.

The average monthly prison population fell rapidly during the first three months of the pandemic, from around 8,000 in March 2020 to just under 7,000 by June 2020. The population rose thereafter, and broadly stabilised from September 2020 at around 7,500. 

Taken together, the population shocks led to an overall reduction of 10% in the average daily prison population, falling from around 8,200 in 2019-20 to 7,337 in 2020-21.  However, the latest figures predominantly reflect the impact of the Covid pandemic on the justice system, and should not be interpreted as indicative of longer-term trends in the prison population. 

As the recently published National Statistics on Criminal Proceedings in Scotland 2020-21 have already shown, reduced court capacity over the pandemic had significant impacts on volumes of court proceedings, the mix of cases able to proceed in court, and associated sentencing outcomes.  The prison population figures released today reflect these and other Covid impacts on the justice system.

Further reflecting Covid impacts on the justice system, arrivals to prison reduced by 28% in 2020-21 (from 14,340 in 2019-20 to 10,260). Fewer individuals spent any time in prison over the course of 2020-21 than in 2019-20 (-3,071 to 14,239, a fall of around 18%). While these reductions continue trends observed from 2009-10, these are the largest single year reductions recorded. There were even greater reductions in the number of individuals spending any time in prison who were women (31% reduction to 867 individuals) or under the age of 18 (37% reduction to 74 individuals).

While the average daily prison population fell overall in 2020-21, the untried population increased by almost 18%, rising from around 1,178 on an average day in 2019-20 to around 1,384 in 2020-21.   Together with decreases in the sentenced and convicted awaiting sentence populations, this has shifted the balance between legal statuses (remand and sentenced) in the prison population. In 2020-21, 22% of the prison population were held on remand on an average day – the largest proportion reported in an official statistics release to date.   

Time spent on remand continued to increase between 2019-20 and 2020-21.  For those who departed custody from remand, the median duration remained approximately the same (22 days in both reporting years). However, while in 2019-20 90% of remand departures had occurred with 98 days, in 2020-21 this had risen to 109 days.

For those who transitioned from remand to the sentenced population, the median time on remand rose steeply from 36 days to 55 days over the same period. In 2019-20, 90% of transitions occurred within 145 days but in 2020-21 this had risen to 175 days.

The offence profile of the sentenced and the remand populations changed in 2020-21.  The average daily sentenced population decreased by 15% overall, but reductions were not equal across the different index offence groups. There were greater reductions in the populations with index offences in Group 3 ‘Dishonesty’, Group 5 ‘Other crimes’ and Group 6 ‘Miscellaneous offences’ (35%, 23% and 21% respectively) than in the populations with index offences in Groups 1 and 2 (9% and 2.8% respectively), the most serious violent and sexual offences. Therefore, those with index offences in Group 1 or 2 accounted for a greater share of the sentenced population in 2020-21 than in 2019-20 – almost 60% compared to around 55%.

While the overall average daily remand population rose by 7% from 2019-20 to 2020-21, this increase was not spread uniformly across all index offence groups. There were large increases in the populations accused of index Group 1 ‘Non-sexual crimes of violence’ (+28% between 2019-20 and 2020-21) and index Group 2 ‘Sexual offences’ (+11% over the same period). However, the populations accused of index offences in Group 3 ‘Dishonesty’ and Group 5 ‘Other crimes’ decreased by 24% and 11% respectively between 2019-20 and 2020-21.


Read the full statistical publication.

Compliance with public health measures during the pandemic influenced operations across the criminal justice system. The Lord Advocate issued revised guidelines on the use of police custody, and the courts had to close for extended periods or operate at reduced capacity. Prison establishments had to ensure sufficient space to allow prisoners to observe public health measures.

The impact of justice system responses to public health measures in 2020-21 included: a decreased volume of custody cases reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, and an increased volume of undertakings reports; a reduced likelihood of an accused being remanded; a reduced volume of concluded cases in courts, with subsequent reduction in custodial sentences issued and growth in the trial backlog; and an agreement in the initial stages of the pandemic response to early release of eligible short term sentenced prisoners. Combined, these shifts impacted both the in-flows to custody and the out-flows from custody. 

See the Coronavirus (COVID-19): Justice Analytical Services data report, the Sheriff Courts - remand and bail outcomes: occasional paper, and the SPS COVID-19 Information Hub, for more information and analysis on the impacts of Covid on the justice system.

Further information about Covid impacts on criminal proceedings and trends in the use of custodial sentences can be read in the National Statistics publication Criminal proceedings in Scotland, 2020-21.


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