The Vision for Justice in Scotland

We set out our transformative vision of the future justice system for Scotland, spanning the full journey of criminal, civil and administrative justice, with a focus on creating safer communities and shifting societal attitudes and circumstances which perpetuate crime and harm.

Aim - We support rehabilitation, use custody only where there is no alternative and work to reduce reoffending and revictimisation

Scotland’s prison population is among the highest per capita in Western Europe despite the fact that over the last 30 years or so recorded crime in Scotland has decreased. Much of this is due to the fact that we are increasingly bringing the perpetrators of certain crimes to justice as well as the fact that prosecutors and courts are dealing with more complex and serious crimes. For example, the number of people in prison for sexual offences has doubled over the last decade as these types of crimes have tended to result in custodial sentences. The proportion of the prison population who are held on remand also increased substantially, especially during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and has risen to a high of 30%.

Whilst there will always be a need for prison, we know that the effect of imprisonment can be negative and profound both for the individual and for their families. Many of those who offend have experienced poverty, disadvantage and ACEs, trauma and often have substance use or health problems and require support. In addition, whilst reconviction rates have been falling over the last 20 years, two-thirds of convictions are second, third and fourth convictions, suggesting that our societal systems are failing to tackle reoffending and to break the cycle of crime. Therefore, due to the known damaging impact of prison and the changing nature of crime trends we must look to redefine the role of custody in the context of needing to better support individual’s rehabilitation, by taking a trauma-informed and person-centred approach whilst also ensuring public safety.

Community interventions are more effective than short prison sentences at addressing offending behaviour and breaking the cycle of reoffending. Prison can by its very nature disrupt factors that can help prevent offending, including family relationships, housing, employment and access to healthcare and support. At the same time as the prison population has been increasing, the use of community sentences has increased to over 20%, in 2019-20. More however needs to be done to ensure that consistent and effective interventions are available across all of Scotland to assist in creating positive futures for those who have offended.

For many crimes that are committed there are victims who have suffered and continue to do so. As we work to ensure effective rehabilitation and recovery for those who have offended this must be balanced with victim’s safety in their own recovery from harm and trauma.

There will always be a need for prison where a risk of serious harm is posed and custody can provide an important opportunity for rehabilitation. However, the international evidence shows that imprisonment can have damaging effects, through weakening social ties, creating stigma, adversely impacting on employability and housing stability, and ultimately increasing the likelihood of reoffending. We know that imprisonment for short periods is counterproductive and our evidence consistently shows that those serving short term sentences reoffend more often although it should be noted that those who receive community sentences have often committed less serious crimes. The long-term aim is that people should only be held in custody where they present a risk of serious harm.

Custodial disposal rate

Percentage of as a proportion of all criminal proceedings has remained relatively static.





Crim. Proc. 2019-20

Prisons and sentences

Fewer people are being sent to prison each year with the number of individuals spending time in custody having fallen by around 15% over the last decade, but those who are sent, are sent for longer.

The Presumption Against Short Sentences (PASS) was increased to apply to sentences of 12 months or less in 2019 and early indications suggest the number of people sent to prison by Scottish Courts each year has fallen.

Adults surveyed in the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey are generally supportive of community sentences with the vast majority of adults believing that people serving community sentences should be given support to reduce the likelihood of them committing more crime in the future, and most believing that people helping their community as part of a community sentence is an appropriate response for a minor offence, rather than a short prison sentence.

Justice in the community is principally about organisations working together to help people who have offended pay back to the community and address the reasons why they commit crime. At present many of those convicted of crimes receive fines or community-based sentences, such as unpaid work or restriction of liberty orders – which are electronically monitored. We will seek to widen the use of electronic monitoring to allow it to be used more routinely as part of the management of relevant individuals in the community and introduce additional capabilities to enable this to take place. Research conducted by the Scottish Sentencing Council revealed that community sentences are commonly viewed by the judiciary as providing a greater chance of rehabilitation and, in general terms, as a more cost-effective alternative to imprisonment. We also recognise that robust arrangements, such as the Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) require to be in place for managing the risks posed by those that have committed the most serious offences. We must therefore have access to a range of consistent, effective interventions in our communities.

We know that sentences served in the community are more effective at reducing reoffending than short-term custodial sentences. This is particularly the case for those who are held on remand; international evidence suggests that remand is associated with negative effects that may hinder longer-term desistance from crime including an increased risk of suicide and mental distress, disintegration of social supports and family ties and disruption to employment that increase the likelihood of reoffending upon release. We must therefore be supported to remain in our communities, minimising stigma and prejudice.

  • 16710 Community Payback Orders imposed in 2019-20
  • 1% increase on 2018-19
  • 70% had an unpaid work or other activity requirement
  • 62% had an offender supervision requirement

Where custody is appropriate, we must also ensure that people are supported when they leave. The reality is that for those who are released from prison, rebuilding their life can be difficult. Lack of employment is known to increase the likelihood of reoffending, and those without a job are more likely to re-offend. However, the pathway to sustainable employment for people with convictions can have many complex obstacles which are similar to desistance and recovery journeys. Finding suitable accommodation can also be a huge challenge for those leaving prison. The 2019 Prisoner Survey found that just over half of prisoners reported losing their accommodation whilst in prison. Furthermore, the Hard Edges study in 2019 found that many people were released straight into homelessness. Housing has also been identified as one of the main challenges encountered by those with drug problems on release, and the lack of stable housing also made it more likely that they would resume drug use. To ensure greater success in reducing reoffending we must be supported to integrate into our communities, including having a safe place to live and options for employment.

Having a family member in prison has a negative effect on all concerned. There are an estimated 20,000 children who are affected by parental imprisonment in Scotland, a recognised Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), and young people who experience family imprisonment in Scotland find it difficult to maintain familial relationships. The evidence suggests that the most important protective factors for children of prisoners are continuing relationships with a parent or carer, and children being given enough information to understand what was happening to them. Early and good-quality contact with their imprisoned parent is also crucial for children, reassuring them about their parent’s wellbeing. In addition, evidence at a UK level showed that the families of those imprisoned relatives saw their debts increase during the period of incarceration, exacerbating the impacts of poverty. Family and strong societal relationships are also a known protective factor against reoffending we must be supported to maintain and enhance social networks and links with families.

Those who experience imprisonment in Scotland have poorer health mentally, and physically. In the 2019 Prisoners Survey, one in five reported that drinking affected their ability to hold down a job and nearly a fifth reported being worried that alcohol would be a problem for them when they get out. The same survey found that around one quarter reported using illegal drugs in prison in the month prior to the survey. Whilst there are no robust figures for the prevalence of mental health problems in Scottish prisoners, prescribing indicators suggest a considerable burden, in particular for depression and psychosis. On a range of other health measures, the prison population show poorer health than the general population. That is, in part, due to the ageing profile of the prison population in Scotland, where the proportion of those aged over 50 years is growing. All of this leads to poor health outcomes, including lower life expectancy for those in prison, we must therefore be supported to improve our health and wellbeing as part of rehabilitation and recovery.

A child in conflict with the law must be treated with dignity and respect. They have the right to legal assistance and a fair trial that takes account of their age. Research by the Children’s and Young People’s Centre for Justice suggests that the majority of young people who are involved in serious offending are often facing many difficulties themselves including trauma, abuse, neglect, bereavement, loss and being victimised themselves. Many struggle to understand the system they are involved in as it is an adult system that does not take age into account. Some research suggests that young people do not fully develop in terms of maturation until their mid-20s so many older young people not have the ability to fully understand information, systems and processes that are designed for adults. We must therefore ensure children and young people are supported, and maturity and stage are considered, as they transition to adult services.

We will have achieved our aim to support rehabilitation, use custody only where there is no alternative and work to reduce reoffending and re-victimisation when:

  • we experience less crime and reduced harm from re-offending in our communities.
  • people who have offended are supported to maintain and enhance their social networks and links with their families.
  • people who have offended, who are in prison are supported to live healthier, more productive lives.
  • those with a family member in prison are protected from the negative impacts.
  • children and young people who have committed crimes are not held in young offenders institutions.
  • children and young people have the appropriate support as they transition to adult services.
  • those who have offended have access to housing which meets their needs.
  • those who have offended have positive employment prospects and fair work.



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