sentence length

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

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

 

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

 

Latest Crime and Punishment Statistics Scotland

Scottish Government Justice Analytical Services have released their latest Statisical bulletin. Some of the key figures include a decrease in the fear of crime, a believe that crime is either static or going down; an increase in the prison population and the average sentence length; and an overal decrease in recorded crime.

Police and Crime

Recorded crime is down by 36% since 2006-07

16.9%: The overall risk of being a victim of crime, which fell from 20.4% in 2008-09, and the estimated number of crimes experienced by adults in Scotland fell by 22% over the same period.

52%: The clear up rate for all recorded crimes in 2013-14, up from 51% in 2012-13 and the highest since 1976

Fear of Crime

76%: the number of adults who thought that the crime rate stayed the same or improved in their local area in 2012-13

Fines

55%: Number of people convicted in 2013-14 who received a financial penalty.

Prisons

4%: The rise in the average prison population between 2010-11 and 2011-12, to 8,178. This was driven by increases of 9% in the remand and 3% in the sentenced population.

9,500: Current projections for the Scottish prison population for 2020-21.

9.5: the average length of sentence in months

Social Work

82%: the percentage of the 19,400 social work order between 2012-13 which were community payback orders.

 

Read the full report here: Monthly Safer Communities and Justice Brief | Justice Analytical Services (JAS) | Scottish Government | March 2015

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