imprisonment rates

Critical Issues in Scottish Penal Policy: Inequality & Imprisonment


This week HLS has invited a selected group of experts to reflect upon critical issues in Scottish penal policy. Today we look at the road to prison. Professor Susan McVie and Dr Ben Matthews, researchers from the Understanding Inequalities project, ask what is the relationship between Scotland’s staggeringly high use of imprisonment and poverty? (Scotland's imprisonment rate is 143 per 100,000 of national population, one of the highest imprisonment rates in Europe). But they push us further, encouraging us to carefully and critically think about how studying crime and inequality can inadvertently stigmatise the poor and marginalised.


Imprisonment and Multiple Deprivation in Scotland

In 2005, Roger Houchin foundthat the links between social exclusion and imprisonment in Scotland were so strong that the best strategy to tackle offending behaviour lay in tackling social exclusion. In 2008, the Scottish Prisons Commission agreed that the prison population was over-represented by people from the poorest communities, and recommendedsignificant changes to the use of imprisonment in Scotland. But 10 years on, what progress has been made?

The ESRC-funded Understanding Inequalities project aims to explore the causes and consequences of inequalities in Scottish society.[1]As part of our work on crime and justice inequalities, we revisited Houchin’s report to see whether the relationship between inequality and imprisonment in Scotland still held, especially given the substantial falls in crime in Scotland over the past 15 years[2].

Specifically, we wanted to see if two of Houchin’s conclusions from 2005 were still valid. Firstly, that there was a ‘linear’ or straightforward correspondence between the level of deprivation in an area and its rate of imprisonment. And second, that deprivation was ‘neither a necessary nor a sufficient’ explanation for rates of imprisonment.

We looked at data on Scottish prisoners from one night in 2014 and examined the datazones (a proxy for neighbourhoods) in which their last known address was registered. Houchin’s conclusions were based on a similar dataset, although there were some differences in methodology[3]so our results are not directly comparable with his at the neighbourhood level. Nevertheless, we can compare our findings with Houchin’s for the whole of Scotland.


Let’s consider Houchin’s two propositions in turn.  To do this, we examined inequality in the rate of imprisonment per 1,000 people in each of Scotland’s 6,976 datazones (to enable comparison across different neighbourhoods).[4] Our measure of inequality was the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), a routinely used measure of deprivation which ranks Scotland’s datazones from 1 (the most deprived neighbourhood) to 6,976 (the least deprived neighbourhood). 

Proposition 1: There is a linear correspondence between level of deprivation and imprisonment.

If proposition one were true, when we plotted the imprisonment rate against the overall rank of SIMD we would expect to see a downward diagonal slope (i.e. as SIMD rank increases - datazones become less deprived – the imprisonment rate correspondingly decreases).  Using the data from 2014, Figure One tests the proposition that this relationship is linear. The blue line gives a ‘best guess’ of what the imprisonment rate would be in each datazone if all we knew about that datazone was its SIMD rank. We can see that, on average, the most deprived datazones (to the left of the chart) have higher imprisonment rates than the less deprived datazones (to the right of the chart).  This is very similar to what Houchin found - as he puts it, “[i]t is not simply that the most deprived are most at risk of imprisonment, it is that, at all levels of prosperity, the probability of imprisonment increases with increasing deprivation.”

There are some caveats, however.  First, we can see that the relationship between the imprisonment rate and SIMD may be better described as a non-linear correspondence than a linear one[5]- the blue line isn’t straight, it curves upwards towards the left-hand side of the graph.  This means that the difference in the ‘best guess’ of the imprisonment rate between, say, the 100th most deprived datazone and the 200th most deprived datazone is not the same as the difference in the ‘best guess’ imprisonment rate between the 200th and 100th least deprived neighbourhoods. In other words, imprisonment rates in the most deprived neighbourhoods of Scotland appear to be disproportionately higher than those in the most affluent neighbourhoods, based on their levels of deprivation alone.

Proposition 2: Deprivation is neither a necessary nor a sufficient correlate of imprisonment

Houchin’s second proposition was that the averagerelationship between imprisonment rate and deprivation (shown in Figure One) did not show the whole picture. To test this, we added the actual imprisonment rate for each individual datazone to Figure Two. Each dot represents a single datazone in Scotland and, as you can see, the dots do not all cluster around the blue line (the best guess of the imprisonment rate based only on SIMD). This suggests that there are other factors that affect the imprisonment rate of a given neighbourhood rather than just deprivation. The wide spread of points around the line also indicates that neighbourhoods with similar levels of deprivation can have very different imprisonment rates. For example, within the 10% most deprived neighbourhoods the maximum imprisonment rate was over 22 per 1,000 people and the minimum imprisonment rate was zero. However, within the 10% least deprived neighbourhoods the maximum imprisonment rate was 3.75 per 1,000 and the minimum rate was zero. In other words, the imprisonment rate is lower in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland (as measured by SIMD) than it is in the least deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland.  Houchin’s second proposition, therefore, is correct.


Imprisonment and Inequality

So has anything actually changed in the years since Houchin’s report?

Based on our analysis, Houchin’s conclusions about the relationship between social exclusion (or inequality) and imprisonment still provide a reasonable description of the relationship between area-level deprivation and area-level imprisonment rates in Scotland. On average there is still a ’correspondence’ between deprivation and imprisonment - and this should be a concern for those interested in prison reform and issues of inequality more broadly in Scotland – however, it is clearly not the only factor that influences whether someone ends up in prison or not.

In order to properly understand the relationship between imprisonment and inequality in Scotland today, we need to take Houchin’s propositions further and examine the extent to which multiple forms of inequality intersect to impact on people’s life chances. In her careful reflection on Houchin’s analysis, Sarah Armstrong cautioned that “killer stats”, like those from Houchin’s report, can “lock in certain ideas and associations… making it difficult to understand the problem in any other terms.” Armstrong warned that if we only focus on the correspondence between deprivation and imprisonment, when we hear the word ‘prisoner’ we will automatically visualize a ‘poor’ face - when the reality is much more complex. We also need to remember that there are very deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland where imprisonment rates are much lower than those of more affluent areas. 

At a simple level, it is true that people living in Scotland’s most deprived communities are disproportionately more likely to end up in our prisons.  But, as we have shown here, visualizing the data in more detail enables us to see that there is a much bigger, more complex, story to be told. It is this that the Understanding Inequalities project aims to do in the coming years.  


Author information: Professor Susan McVie and Dr Ben Matthews work on the ESRC-funded Understanding Inequalties project at the Univeristy of Edinburgh.


[1]The Understanding Inequalities project has been funded by the ESRC (Grant Reference ES/P009301/1) for three years from October 2017.  It involves an international team of researchers led by the University of Edinburgh.  

[2]The Applied Quantitative Methods Network analysed different aspects of the crime drop in Scotland, including trends in victimization, the spatial distribution, and patterns of convictions.

[3]There’s a helpful, if rather technical, discussion of these methodological challenges on Wikipedia.

[4]We calculate this as a rate by dividing the number of people in prison with a home address in each datazone by the total datazone population. It’s important to remember that we only have data on numbers of people in prison, not offending, conviction, policing, reporting, sentencing or any other factors which may affect the numbers of people in a given neighbourhood who were in prison on the night this dataset relates to.

[5]Statistically-minded readers will have noted that whether fitted values from a statistical model are linear or non-linear will depend on the model specification used. We compared the statistical fit of a model which allowed the relationship between imprisonment rate and Overall SIMD to be non-linear to a model which only allowed a linear relationship, and found that the non-linear model did a better job of describing the data.

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

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.

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


Lord Carloway Drummond Hunter Lecture - full paper

The annual Drummond Hunter Lecture was a great success this year, with over 200 people in attendance to hear Lord Carloway discuss The Purpose of Sentencing – From Beccaria to the OLR and Beyond’.

You can find a full copy of his talk here: Howard League Scotland Drummond Hunter Lecture 2014







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