Ban on automatic early release

The ban on automatic early release for sex offenders will show that politics, rather than evidence, shapes Scottish penal policy. Internationally, between 4% and 30% those imprisoned for sexual offences are reconvicted of another crime (not necessarily sexual in nature); a reoffending rate that is lower than other serious violent offenders. Unlike most other crimes, however, sex offences marshal vitriolic public responses. Debates and discussions tend to become steered by highly emotional and punitive perspectives, and it would be easy for these views to become entrenched in Scottish penal policy as well. The heat which resonates from public debates should not stop us from leading more reasoned and informed discussions of penal policy. Without reference to the evidence and research we risk developing prison policy which runs counter to possible best practice.  Bench et al, reflecting on their extensive longitudinal study of sex offender reoffending rates, remark on how divorced our conceptions of risk and sex offenders are in comparison to the empirical reality, writing that ‘The current interest in sex offenses has spawned assumptions about the behavior of sex offenders that are contrary to the findings of numerous empirical studies showing that sex offender recidivism is surprisingly low’ (2013:424).

Speaking of the blanket ban on early release for sex offenders in Ireland, O’Donnell et al write that it ‘makes it difficult to incentivize them to participate in treatment programmes. However, we know that periods of parole are typically short, measured in months rather than years, and that sex offenders are unlikely to recidivate soon after release (Friendship and Thornton, 2001). If the assessment of risk is to play a role in the determination of parole then this must redound to the advantage of sex offenders’ (2008: 138).

We know that supervised release back into the community supports desistance; easing the difficult post-prison transition as well as providing mechanisms of continued criminal justice monitoring for the protection for public safety. Moreover, the ‘community management of sex offenders can be done safely in the majority of cases if the right things are done and done well’ (Kemshall 2012).

A sizeable challenge then faces Scottish politicians and policymakers: to run the gauntlet of media misrepresentation and the heat of public ire regarding sex offences (and lest we forget, a reaction which is often rooted in compassion as much as punitvism), and ignite a discussion about the aims of prison and supervision for sex offenders which is evidence-led.


Find out more:

Scotland: Recidivism amongst Serious Violent and Sexual Offenders


Bench, L. and Allen, T.D (2013) Assessing Sex Offender Recidivism Using Multiple Measures: A Longitudinal Analysis, in The Prison Journal, 93(4):411-428.

Friendship, C. and D. Thornton (2001) ‘Sexual Reconviction for Sex Offenders Released from Prison in England and Wales: Implications for Evaluating Treatment’, British Journal of Criminology 41(2): 285–92.

Howard League Scotland, Proposal to end automatic early release.

O’Donnell, I., Baumer, E.P. and Hughes, N (2008) Recidivism in the Republic of Ireland, in Criminology and Criminal Justice 8(2):123-146.

Kemshall, K. Presentation made to Members of the Legislative Assembly, Stormont, April24th, 2012, sponsored by NIACRO: Public Protection: What works in the safe management of sexual offenders?.

Scottish Government: Bill to End Automatic Early Release.

Scottish Parliament Information Centre: Prisoners (Control of Release) (Scotland) Bill

Grampian Prison Radio Station

Grampian prison is to begin broadcasting a new prison radio station. According to news reports, the station was made possible thanks to Lottery funding, and it is the first of kind in the UK.

Read more here:

New radio station for Grampian prisoners, in Press and Journal

January 2015 Scottish Prison Population

Pat Carlen on Women in Prison - an indictment of society

Pat Carlen reflecting on her seminal work in Cornton Vale, her words remain as perinent and as urgent now as they did then:

"Insofar as prisons debilitate, women's prisons feed off their own product. But it is an indictment of this society, and not of the prison system, when women tell me that they will go out of prison to a world that has even less to offer than the prison itself. Depressed and alone, some sink into a state where they become
careless of what happens to them. They re-offend and the circle repeats itself again and again."

Read the full article here

Death, Addiction and Decay - Health matters in Scottish prisons

Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer 2013 - Medical Leadership in Scotland

The Scottish Prison Service and NHS face a daily challenge ensuring those detained in prison receive all necessary forms of care. Given the extremely high levels of incarceration in Scotland, this is no small task. That is why the recent Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer provides illuminating, and also troubling insight into care and need in Scottish custody in 2013.

Nationally, health inequalities remain a ‘major problem in Scotland’, operating in criminal justice spheres ‘offers an opportunity for people in the community who find services hardest to reach, to benefit from support even of the briefest nature’. The report makes clear how problematic it can be to craft the policy and practice of healthcare in criminal justice and not consider those inseparable broader social inequities; stating that it ‘remains the case that key determinants of health are poverty, housing and access to welfare or employment opportunities, along with social aspects of rehabilitation. Without addressing them, risk factor and health improvement intervention will have limited impact and this applies equally to police custody and prisons’.

The disproportionately high medical and healthcare need among the Scottish prison population as compared to the general population was illustrated by a number of key statistics:

  • 54% of 200,000 people who had been in police custody in Scotland had problems with alcohol and drugs.
  • 68% of the same group had difficulties with substance misuse, and problems with both medical and mental health.
  • 73% of prisoners are believed to have an alcohol problem.
  • 36% are believed to be alcohol dependent.
  • At the time of the offence, 45% of prisoner reported being under the influence of alcohol, and;
  • 39% reported that at the time of their offence they were under the influence of drugs.
  •  Upon reception to prison, 77% of prisoners tested as positive for illegal drugs (33% for opiates)
  • It is believed that 19% of the prison population are Hepatitis C positive.
  • About 10% of men in the general population in Scotland suffer from dental decay, compared to 29% of men in Scottish prisons.
  • For women in prison in Scotland, 42% suffer from dental decay, compared to 3% of women in the general population.
  • Both men and women who have been in prison have higher risk of death than the general Scottish populace. The risk of mortality is particularly high in the immediate post release period ‘as prisoners return to the poor circumstances, poverty of opportunity and hope that they left’.

Read the report, particularly the Health & Justice section here