Prison population: position paper

Scottish Government action to address the increase in prisoner numbers. Includes information on the drivers of the prison population and country comparisons.


We have and are taking a range of actions to address and mitigate the rising prison population, including:

  • extending the presumption against short sentences to those of 12 months or less in 2019. As above, there is still a notable proportion of short sentences being given. Those decisions are rightly a matter for the independent judiciary, but we have seen a slight uptick recently
  • introducing electronic monitoring of bail in 2022, with those being monitored this year now reaching around 400
  • making express provision enabling time spent on electronically monitored bail to be taken into account at sentencing (due to come into force in July 2024)
  • optimisation of home detention curfew across the prison estate, which  has resulted in an increase of around 30 to 40, to 97 as of 16 May
  • SPS has and continues to take action to optimise the prison estate, creating 138 additional spaces for adult male prisoners at HMP & YOI Polmont, with scope to increase that to 210 once under eighteens have been transferred into secure care accommodation
  • SPS is also working towards creating around 100 additional spaces at HMP Low Moss, which will take time to achieve, and to maximise the space available at HMP Grampian

Given the recent sharp rise in the prison population and the difficulty in ascertaining the drivers, further action is now necessary.

That action will seek to ensure SPS staff and prisoners can be kept safe and secure. It will also seek to ensure that rehabilitative activities – which are key in reducing re-offending behaviour and victimisation in the longer term – can be properly managed and delivered. In short, allowing the situation to worsen would not serve the interests of the public, nor public safety.

We are therefore proposing the following actions in the immediate to short term:

Emergency release

Under section 11 of the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Act 2023, which enables the release of certain prisoners up to 180 days early for a specific period of time. Parliament’s agreement will be sought through secondary legislation, engaging with a wide range of stakeholders and partners.

  • victim safety is a key priority and only those on short sentences (under four years) would be eligible
  • the Victim Notification Scheme would apply as it would otherwise

The following prisoners will not be eligible:

  • life sentence prisoners
  • terrorist prisoners
  • those serving sentences for domestic abuse
  • those serving sentences for sexual offences
  • those subject to the sex offender notification requirements

Those that would be eligible would be due to be released in the time period defined, i.e. within a maximum 6 months.

A Governor’s veto would also apply so where a prisoner was considered to pose an immediate risk of harm to an identified person, or group, would not be released.

Automatic early release

a consultative exercise to inform a proposal for changes to how long term prisoners are released, recognising the rationale for the reforms to automatic early release that took place in 2016, and taking account of the aforementioned increases in average sentence length and other relevant evidence.

Home detention curfew (HDC)

Bringing forward secondary legislation to amend the eligibility criteria for HDC, increasing the period of time individuals can spend on release under licence conditions.

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