Crime falls, but the prison remains

The Scottish Government has just released their annual Court Proceedings statistics. As a result, what we have learned is that the number of people being convicted has fallen. This is welcome news, meaning that fewer people in Scotland become entangled in the criminal justice system. These changing conviction rates are in line with a general fall in crime that has been experienced here and elsewhere, the reports highlight that crime in Scotland is now at a 43 year low.

While the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson, welcomed these findings, this data revealed patterns of punishment that HLS remains seriously concerned about. The average sentence length has risen to just over ten months, a 26% increase over the last decade. This figure may also be artificially deflated because it excludes life imprisonment and indeterminate sentences, which are the longest prison sentences. Therefore, while the number of people being convicted has fallen, ever increasing sentence lengths means the average daily prison population has continued to be consistently high. With an average 135 people per 100,000 being incarcerated, Scotland has one of the most extensive prison systems in Western Europe. Any advances, whilst encouraging, remain overshadowed by the pervasiveness of the Scottish prison.

The good news is further complicated by examining changing sentencing patterns for all disposals across the last ten years. Increasingly, the courts are imposing community sanctions. It appears, however, to be at the expense of the fine, as the use of the prison has stayed the same, with between 13-15% of all of those sentenced over the last decade receiving a term of imprisonment. Despite significant and important changes in court disposals and crime rates, the prison remains an enduring and steadfast feature of the Scottish penal landscape. 

A large part of the motivation behind developing alternatives to custody, such as community disposals, was informed by a recognition that the ‘prison may sometimes do good, but it always does harm’ (Scottish Prisons Commission, 2008). But community sanctions are more intrusive than fines, they are certainly not a soft option. If they are in fact displacing the financial penalties rather than the prison, this should be seen as a potentially serious development.

HLS strongly advocates for a reduction in the frequency and the severity of custodial sentences: less people should be imprisoned and sentence lengths should be curtailed. We need to address what appears to be a worrying pattern emerging in Scotland of longer prison sentences being handed down by the judiciary for all crimes. Our vision is for a Scottish sentencing system that reflects the values of social justice in which the prison is used parsimoniously. With crime at an all time low, this should be seen as an opportune moment to reverse Scotland's persistently and troublingly high use of incarceration.


Read More: 

Criminal Proceedings in Scotland, 2016-17
Vision for Penal Reform in 2018


Vision for Scottish Penal Reform in 2018

Conviction and Citizenship, Penal Reform for 2018

The centenary of women’s right to vote has been a powerful and timely reminder that citizenship is not automatic, even in democratic societies. We are reminded also that when people are reduced to second class citizenship, and thus socially excluded, it is all too often the result of policy and legislation. The anniversary of women’s right to vote demonstrates that equality for disenfranchised and excluded citizens can be achieved through campaigning, though often in the face of political opposition and public hostility.
When we deny people the right to belong, when we curtail their citizenship and socially marginalise particular groups, we degrade the quality of the democracy across our entire society. During 2018, Howard League Scotland plans to focus our campaigning efforts on Conviction and Citizenship. We aim to highlight some of the ways the criminal justice system impedes citizenship and belonging, and intend to engage with others to discuss how we can best promote these ideals in prison policy, community justice and sentencing. This of course includes our long-running campaign on prisoner voting. Scotland, along with England and Wales, remains one of the few European nations that denies prisoners the right to vote. But the criminal justice system creates many other hurdles that severely hampers people’s ability to contribute and fully belong to Scottish civic life. Other issues, such as the disclosure of criminal records, high imprisonment rates, and access to a high standard of education, training and good quality employment in prisons, should also be viewed in the context of citizenship.
In 2018 we will campaign for:

  • A reduction in the prison population size. Scotland has one of the highest imprisonment rates in Western Europe. This must be reduced if we are to create a strong and resilient Scottish society that is characterised by equality, social justice and fairness. People who receive a term of imprisonment tend to be disproportionately drawn from Scotland’s most economically marginalised communities. There is a startling link between high rates of imprisonment and high rates of deprivation. Howard League Scotland continues to campaign for a reduction in the use of imprisonment in Scotland because prison negatively impacts the life chances of people sent there. Men and women who have been in prison have higher mortality rates, and a higher risk of homelessness, unemployment and ill-health than the general Scottish population. Scotland’s high imprisonment rates also have hugely detrimental effects for the local communities who are the most impacted by imprisonment as their economic marginalisation becomes further entrenched, family life is de-stabilised, and ordinary local relations become fractured.


  • Improved prison education and work. Access to work and education is vital for supporting people’s post-prison social reintegration, developing their sense of belonging and personal worth as well as contributing to desistance. SPS must provide an array of meaningful activities and vocational training options. Scotland should aspire to be amongst the best countries in the world in providing an array of meaningful activities, educational opportunities and vocational training options in prisons and other criminal justice settings.These programmes should be about more than reducing reoffending, but aimed at personal development and future reintegration.


  • Spent convictions legislation must be overhauled. Scotland has unduly lengthy periods of time that a person is expected to disclose their past conviction to potential employers. This is a serious hurdle to employment, undermining the process of rehabilitation and social integration, while also stigmatising people with convictions who have to reveal themselves as being ‘ex-offenders’. In 2018 the Scottish government has proposed new legislation which will overhaul the current spent convictions legislation. Though the content of the proposed new legislation is not yet published, HLS strongly supports a robust overhaul of the current arrangements. While the balance of the Act must also support employers who work with vulnerable groups, it should strive to also work in favour of social and economic equality for people with convictions.


  • Prisoner voting rights. Since the devolution of electoral matters to Holyrood by the Scotland Act 2016, Scotland now has the opportunity to be the first polity in the United Kingdom to extend the franchise to convicted prisoners. This is not just for reasons of rehabilitation. Prisoner voting is not a criminal justice matter, it is an electoral issue: in its current form it exposes the inequality that currently undermines Scottish democracy. While England and Wales continue to deny prisoners the right to vote, despite the European Court ruling that it is unlawful, by extending the vote to all prisoners, Scottish government can buck this trend, sending the clearest signal yet about its commitment to justice, fairness and inclusion.

We hope that as our supporters, you will join with us in 2018 in addressing these policy issues. By becoming a member, following us on twitter and liking us on facebook, or by making even a small donation, you can add your voice to our campaign for penal reform. Together, we can reduce the number of people in Scottish prisons, transform imprisonment regimes and community justice, and ultimately promote safer and more equal communities in Scotland.
For further details contact:

Spent Convictions Legislation

evidence shows that it is eight times harder for a person to gain employment [after imprisonment], with declaration of a criminal record the greatest factor in an employer refusing employment.’ – Scottish Government, Key facts, Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974


More than 1 in every 3 men and almost 1 in every 10 women in Scotland have a criminal record. A past conviction can become ‘spent’, which means a person with a conviction no longer has to disclose their criminal record after a certain number of years. How long until the conviction is effectively removed from your record is stated in legislation, in Scotland this is the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Regulations that permit past criminal transgressions to become spent are vital as it allows a person to move on from a conviction. However, unduly harsh spent conviction legislation means people have to reveal their criminal history for long periods of time, sometimes forever, severely hindering a person's attempt to find employment, training and volunteering, secure insurance and even open a bank account. These are basic and normal features of adult life, thus spent conviction legislation can render someone a second class citizen as well as socially and economically marginalising them. Moreover, access to these opportunities and routines are important for social reintegration and reducing re-offending. We advocate that a decrease in the period of time that must pass before a conviction becomes spent, what is known as a ‘rehabilitation period’, is overdue. Reducing the ‘rehabilitation period’ removes a significant hurdle, one that blocks a person with a conviction from being socially integrated and disrupts their ability to desist from crime. Change in the spent conviction legislation is due in 2018. Though the content of the proposed new legislation is not yet published, HLS strongly support a robust overhaul of the current arrangements. While the balance of the Act must also support employers who work with vulnerable groups, it should strive to also work in favour of social and economic equality for those with convictions.

Read more:

How long until my conviction is spent?

Evidence on prisoner voting rights for Equalities and Human Rights Committee


Howard League Scotland welcomes the opportunity to participate in the roundtable discussion about prisoner voting rights held by the Equalities and Human Rights Committee (Thursday 7 September 2017).

Howard League Scotland believes that a blanket ban on convicted prisoners voting is wrong: the right to vote should only be removed with more specific justification, if ever. We have argued against the blanket ban on both occasions relevant legislation has come before the Scottish Parliament.

We wish to highlight the following points to the Committee:

  • We believe a custodial sentence by itself sets too low a threshold for the loss of such an important right as the right to vote. It relies on imprisonment being seen as automatic “civic death” and sits at odds with the political commitment to the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders.
  • Scotland has one the highest rates of imprisonment in western Europe. Applying a  blanket ban therefore sets a lower threshold for losing the vote here than it would in almost all other western European countries. As it is, the most recent review carried out by the UK Cabinet Office revealed that of the 47 Council of Europe countries only five European countries enforce a blanket ban: Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Russia and the UK[1].
  • The blanket ban is not based on a transparent, considered debate about the nature and limits of democracy and the position of prisoners. It dates only from 1969, when it was introduced with minimal scrutiny. There was no legal ban in Scotland on prisoners voting between 1949 and 1969, and before that only one on those convicted of the most serious imprisonable crimes (“outlaws”). It reflects the earlier relationship between voting, and the ownership and confiscation of property.
  • The cross-party joint committee of the UK Houses of Parliament concluded in 2013 that all prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less should be entitled to vote[2]. This has yet to be taken forward at Westminster.
  • Removing the vote from those serving shorter sentences has particularly arbitrary effects: actual vote loss depends on a combination of the date of sentencing diet, how long has previously been spent on remand, early release and timing of elections, rather than the sentence or offence committed. Also, cases attracting a short-term prison sentence and those receiving a community penalty may be very similar.
  • The Scotland Act compels the Scottish Parliament to ensure that all legislation must be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Scottish Government has previously rejected amendments to two bills that would have extended voting rights to some convicted prisoners, most recently on the basis of lack of competence. However, with competence extended, any future legislation relating to the franchise in the Scottish Parliament which seeks to continue a blanket ban on voting by convicted prisoners would be in breach of the ECHR and therefore its competence open to challenge.

Relevant links:

Howard League Scotland’s submission on the Scottish Independence Referendum (Franchise) Bill:

Howard League Scotland’s submission on the Scottish elections (Reduction of Voting Age) Bill: