Scottish Prisons in Comparative Perspective

The Council of Europe today published their Annual Penal Statistics – Survey 2016. The report reflects detailed information from 47 of the 52 prison administrations across the Council of Europe. This has revealed a slight increase in the total size of the prison population across these jurisdictions, rising by 1%, the Council of Europe average prisoner population is 117 prisoners per 100,000 people. This report is also important because it allows us to see where Scotland sits in relation to penal trends in other countries.

Matters we should be worried about include the revelation that Scottish prisons have the highest mortality rates within the UK. They are slightly higher than England and Wales and more than double the rate of deaths recorded in Northern Irish prisons.

For every 100,000 inhabitants in Scotland there are 584.3 entries to a prison. This is extraordinarily high. The rate of entry in England and Wales is only 197.3 per 100,000 of the population. This puts us far beyond the European entry rate average of 167.3 people, giving Scotland the third highest entry rate of the 47 nations surveyed in the Council of Europe report. The entry rate does not reflect the number of individuals received into prison, but the total number of times someone enters a prison. So this can include the same individual receiving more than prison sentence in a year. This suggests that more people are being churned through the prison system more often than almost any other country.

Scotland releases people at a slower rate than the European average. In 2015, 31,300 people entered Scottish prisons and 16,700 people were released. This means Scotland has a turnover ratio of 42.6. This is below the European average of 52.3 and places us in the group of countries with the lowest turnover ratios. The Council of Europe warns that low turnover rates are potentially an indicator of future overcrowding.

Within the UK Scotland was recorded as having the highest percentage of females in the prison population (Scotland: 5.2%; England and Wales: 4.5%; Northern Ireland: 3.6%)

There was an average of 1494 people imprisoned as pre-trial detainees

Other important figures include:

The rate of releases per 100,000 people in national population was 311.8, which was far above the average of 135.1

Scotland is recorded as having one of the shortest average sentences at 2.9 months, this is below the European average of 9.8. Short sentences can help keep prisoner numbers low, but it can also be an indicator that prison is not being used a measure of last resort. However, since the presumption against short sentences was introduced in Scotland this figure is likley to have risen.

Scotland has a lower than average prisoner suicide rate, with 8.3% of deaths in Scottish prisons recorded as suicide.

Since the figures were collated Scotland’s prison population has dropped from 142 per 100,000 to 139. While this is welcome, the change is likely due to drop in the number of people being proceeded against by the courts rather than reflecting a change in prison policy. To make this change permanent and continuous requires policies that address Scottish punitive sentencing trends, cautious parole practices and long-term prisoner legislation.

Read more: SPACE I: Annual Penal Statistics in Europe for 2016

HLS Welcomes Increase in Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility

HLS are pleased to see the Scottish government has finally brought forward a Bill that will raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) from 8 to 12. Having a MACR set at eight years old meant Scotland had the lowest minimum age of criminal responsibility in Europe and one of the lowest in the world. At Howard League Scotland we have long campaigned for this change and are pleased to see the government move forward with this plan. This finally brings the MACR into line with the minimum age of prosecution.

However, we hope this is just the beginning and we would like to see consideration given to raising it further still. Raising the MACR does not mean refusing to hold children accountable for their actions, but it does mean ensuring that we avoid the criminalisation of children, and that we pay due attention to their welfare and educational needs. While this now means we have a higher MACR than England and Wales (where it is ten years old), the bar for measuring our success should not be limited to comparison with other UK governments. Scotland should aspire to be a European and international leader on the MACR as a matter of social justice and youth justice. 

The Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility: An International Snapshot: 

  • 13 years old in Greece and Poland
  • 14 years old in Bulgaria, Spain, Italy, Germany and Austria
  • 15 years old in Denmark, Norway and Sweden
  • 16 years old in Portugal and Romania and
  • 18 years old in Brazil and Luxembourg, and in Belgium for all but the most serious offences.

HLS welcome today’s change in the MACR. However, we hope this sparks ongoing debate and discussion about raising both the MACR and minimum age of prosecution further.

Read More:
Scottish Government: Minimum age of criminal responsibility


Scotland Must Reform Life Sentences

Scotland’s punitive sentencing system has come under scrutiny today by Prof Dirk Van Zyl Smit, who was invited to Scotland by HLS. HLS are very pleased that the need to reform life sentences in Scotland has received wide coverage in today’s Herald. There it is reported that in the Netherlands there are 30 lifers, compared to Scotland’s 1000. Research being conducted by Prof Van Zyl Smit shows that Scotland sentences more people to life than England and Wales. A startling research finding has also revealed that Scotland has double the number of people on life sentences than France. This evidence about Scotland’s automatic life sentences helps partially explain Scotland’s incredibly high prison population and calls into question punitive suggestions for whole life tariffs.

The reasons for the disparity is that in other countries it is acknowledged in sentencing policy that all murderers are not dangerous and do not require life long exclusion. HLS are quoted in the news coverage. We strongly advocate for a reduction in the use of automatic life sentences. If Scotland aspires to be the develop the most progressive social policy in the English-speaking world than we must abandon penal policy in Scotland that is unnecessarily retributive. As Dirk Van Zyl Smit is quoted as saying: ‘Scottish people often have an idea of the criminal justice system as not being as harsh as elsewhere. At the top end that is not true’. 

  • Tickets for Dirk Van Zyl Smit’s talk are available here


International Women's Day

On International Women’s Day we think of the almost 400 women who are currently detained in Scottish prisons.

News released today by SPS shows images of a new smaller prison for women to be opened in 2020. Scotland has a history of trying to be innovative in regards to women’s imprisonment. Yet the failure of these innovations is also an inescapable part of Scotland’s contemporary prison history, as self-harm and suicide have continued inside the prison, and women’s poverty and social exclusion continue to be entrenched by having been imprisoned. And despite efforts, over the last 40 years we have witnessed the steadily increasing number of women imprisoned in Scotland. But there are lessons in failure that can help us re-think the future of women's penal policy so that it can meet the demands of social justice.

We welcome that the new prison will hold around 20 women. HLS firmly believe that the social and rehabilitative value of small prisons far outstrips the expedient value of economies of scale of larger prisons. But real penal reform and innovation will not be found in a small scale expansion of the women’s prison estate, but through decarceration. We hope that this new prison is a development in that direction. Scottish government should formally commit to reducing the size of the women’s prison population to at least half of what it currently is. With public and political backing, Scotland can take this opportunity to be a world leader in social justice and penal reform by radically cutting the number of females in custody.

However, if we do reduce the prison infrastructure to hold less than 200 women and girls (which would be half the current number), how can the government guarantee against overcrowding? While the recent plans in the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill make provisions to extend electronic monitoring which can alleviate prisoner numbers, as HLS recently wrote, this brings with it other risks to citizenship and community life. We should not lose sight that social justice is not only about imprisoning better, but imprisoning less.

Proposed Advances in Electronic Monitoring

The Scottish government recently introduced the Managment of Offenders (Scotland) Bill. HLS cautiously welcomes the proposed changes to electronic monitoring as a means to directly and assertively reduce Scotland’s troublingly high imprisonment rate. Our wariness, however, is rooted in our concerns about criminal justice net-widening. As we recently wrote, an increase in community sentences over the last decade has not impacted the rate at which Scottish courts give prison sentences. Moreover, the expansion and refinement of electronic monitoring (EM) poses other potential issues for social justice, desistance and citizenship, which HLS remains apprehensive about.

Part of the appeal of EM is that it is considerably cheaper than prison. However, there needs to be sound penological reasons underpinning its use and development. The Scottish government have made it clear that they are interested in reducing re-offending. As a tracking technology EM has no inherent rehabilitative capacities, however, and we are concerned that expanding its use may in fact undermine criminal justice social work. EM cannot replace the human contact and the positive relationship between a social worker and their supervisee. The encouragement and guidance provided by probation can be vital in supporting a person’s rehabilitation, this includes helping someone access education and employment, secure housing and address addiction. Moreover, EM cannot counter the other issues that often underlie offending, namely, socially inequality and lack of opportunities. Monitoring should not be misrepresented as centrally a tool for rehabilitation. Its use, therefore, should be only one among a suite of community supervision and rehabilitation measures.

If that becomes the case, and EM is but one tactic in an integrated programme of community supervision and surveillance, then the severity of punishment for breaching EM should remain in question. If a person who is tagged is generally succeeding in meeting the broader demands of supervision and desistance, we need to seriously consider if breach of EM curfews and exclusion areas should automatically cause a recall to prison.

HLS are also particularly concerned about the proposed creation of exclusion zones that could range "from a house, to specific street patterns, to a neighbourhood, to a whole city. GPS also allows more than one exclusion zone to be set. Using GPS technology to set exclusion zones can help create safe spaces for victims of crime", according to the Scottish government. We worry that a desire for effective and cheaper forms of criminal justice and community protection are superseding more ethical and social concerns about citizenship and reintegration. When people are denied access to large areas of public space, like city centres, it sends a clear statement that they do not belong here, that they do not deserve equal membership of Scottish society. When we block people from full social and civic association we degrade their citizenship as we make people criminal for moving through public spaces. We also blur the lines between the community and the prison. We strongly resist any suggestion that cities and neighbourhoods should be carved up into permitted territories and no-go zones. This has the long-term potential to create a community justice culture of security and exclusion in Scotland, rather than a culture of reintegration and social inclusion.

Relatedly, we know that in Scotland, like elsewhere, people sentenced to prison are largely drawn from the most disadvantaged communities. If the use of EM follows this pattern – and those being tagged and GPS tracked are concentrated in the most marginalised areas – the Scottish government risks converting neighbourhoods that are already hindered by social exclusion into prison-like places, where large sections of the population have restricted movement and liberty. Any attempt to reduce prison numbers and achieve the aims of social justice is seriously undermined if EM inadvertently creates communities of confinement across Scotland.

Any form of tagging and monitoring should be developed with these concerns in mind. EM can support rehabilitation, offer community protection and keep people within their families. But achieving the goals of community justice while mitigating the serious social and civic risks will require a delicate and critical balance. To begin to address some of these issues, and emphasise EM’s potential strengths, longer periods of supervision could be organised on a graded system, becoming increasingly less onerous, with stipulations and exclusions reduced, as time passes. As the Council of Europe wrote, ‘EM can certainly be used in ways which make an offender feel trusted, an important ingredient in the rehabilitation process’. Finally, long-term research is needed to carefully monitor the economic, rehabilitative and qualitative impact of EM on individuals, communities and Scottish civic life.

Read More:

The Scotsman: Scottish criminals ‘could be barred from entire cities’
BBC News: Use of electronic tags to be extended
Iriss (2017) Electronic monitoring in the criminal justice system