New Strapline Brief

No incentives. No terms and conditions. Just a simple brief and the opportunity to contribute to making Scotland a better and safer place. 

We're proud to follow the search John Howard took between 1775 and 1790 to find a humane prison system, and to work with associated organisations founded in his name across the world. In 1979 our unique penal system called for the establishment of an independent Scottish organisation, and to mark our 40th Anniversary this year we'd like your help in coming up with a strapline to reflect and celebrate what we stand for. Email responses to:

Strapline Brief


Howard League Scotland (HLS) is Scotland’s leading independent campaigning organisation for the rights of prisoners and other offenders. Established in 1979, we promote just responses to the causes and consequences of crime, convinced that prison should be a place of last resort. We do not seek Government funding and HLS is entirely funded by voluntary donations, allowing us to speak freely on issues of concern.

We focus on how to reduce the number of people in prison, and on prison conditions and regime. We campaign for progressive approaches to prisoners, based on evidence of ‘what works’ and on a humane approach to ‘what’s right’. For example, we believe that the Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility should be raised from 8 to 16 years of age; that all prisoners should have voting rights; that more use should be made of non-custodial sentences; and we are opposed to the building of a new super-size prison to replace Barlinnie.

We don't represent individuals or provide services. Working with MSPs, other decision makers and influencers, we aim to highlight key areas of concern and present evidence on penal reform issues via our website, social media channels and the media, as well as directly to Parliamentary Committees.

The HLS Committee is made up of experts drawn from legal, academic, voluntary and public sector backgrounds, who all give freely of their time and expertise.


A strapline, which we would like to add to our existing logo and launch at our 40th Anniversary Conference in May 2019: ‘Reimagining justice in Scotland’.

Examples of how the strapline and logo could be executed creatively would also be welcome.


  • help to position Howard League Scotland as a separate entity from the Howard League for Penal Reform, which whilst describing itself as a national charity, operates in England and Wales
  • provide clarification of what we stand for, in order to boost membership and support our fundraising applications and activities

Target Audience

Key parliamentarians; civil and other public servants; funders; academics; practitioners; members of the public interested in penal reform; media; other penal reform organisations.



Call for Submissions: 40th Anniversary Conference 'Reimagining the Future'

Our 40th Anniversary conference in Edinburgh on Wednesday 22 May 2019, will ask “what should the next 40 years of criminal justice in Scotland look like?”. We want to explore new ideas and new directions for the future of criminal justice in Scotland - to stimulate new thinking about how we can work towards a better future.

The conference will be organised round twelve brief presentations. Each speaker will have ten minutes in which to present a new proposal for penal reform, a new idea about how we could improve our system of criminal justice, or a new direction for penal thought. We will also encourage questions about, and comments on, the proposals from other participants in the conference.

We now invite submissions for these presentation slots from a wide spectrum of participants, and would particularly welcome submissions from early career researchers, from practitioners, and from those with lived experience of the criminal justice system.

All we need is a half-page proposal and a brief biography by the end of February 2019. (Although links to previous presentations would also be very welcome.) We will confirm attendance with you by the end of March 2019, and where it is not possible to accommodate a presentation, we will endeavour to include your contribution in some other format during the conference. Please email:

First HLS Student Society Launches


We are delighted to announce that Scotland’s first HLS Student Society is launching at Edinburgh Napier Univeristy, where this is a strong reputation for criminal justice, policing and social studies of punishment. As the first of its kind, the HLS student society is interested in encouraging debate about punishment, social justice, human rights and fairness, as well as developing a more critical understanding of Scotland’s distinct penal issues among the student community. They intend to organise debates, field visits, lectures, roundtable discussions as well as social events.

By becoming a member students will automatically become a member of HLS. This means all Howard Leagues Scotland events will be free to them. 

Organised events so far include:

  • A screening of Michael Inside 1 November, 6pm
  • A screening of On the Outside in early January

Further events are being planned for throughout 2019.

Formed in 1979, HLS is Scotland’s oldest and leading independent penal reform organisation.  We campaign for the Scottish penal system to be just, progressive and humane and that prison becomes a measure of last resort.

To find out more contact:

Critical Issues in Scottish Penal Policy: Prison Reductionism

This week HLS has invited a selected group of experts to reflect upon critical issues in Scottish penal policy. Today, our post is from SPARC (Scottish Prisoner Advocacy and Research Collective), an exciting new voice in Scottish penal reform. They advocate that rather than refining the prison, making it more caring, we must remain committed, first and foremost, to reducing the prison – we cannot lose sight that prison is inherently damaging for those imprisoned there, their families and wider society. 

Why penal reductionism must be at the centre of prison reform 


Once you are in it is difficult to get out.

It is well established that prisons do not reduce re-offending. For individuals released from custody in 2014-15 (the last year where detailed statistics were published by the Scottish Government) 60% of those serving a sentence of less than three months were reconvicted. While reconviction rates for longer sentences are lower, almost a quarter of those serving between 2 and 4 years were reconvicted (Scottish Government 2017). So what effect does the prison have?

The prison of course makes a massive impact on individuals, families, communities and society. Counter to current prison policy, we suggest that it is crucial to examine the effect of prison itself, rather than continuing to pathologise those within it as “bad” or “anti-social”, constantly positioning the prison as a site where these people can be repaired and from which good can flow. Indeed, there is strong evidence that criminal justice system contact can be criminogenic, with young people who are drawn into the justice system less likely to desist than those who engage in the same behaviours, but do not experience an intervention from the criminal justice system (McAra and McVie 2005).  

Similarly, in 2008 the Prisons Commission highlighted that even short periods in custody disrupts positive and supportive relationships in the community and, notably, that the physical geography and institutional regimes of prisons discourage independence and personal responsibility, institutionalising (and we would add traumatising) many of the people who are sentenced to this form of punishment. Imprisonment can also create or exacerbate problems relating to housing, child care, employment and discriminatory public attitudes[1].  For instance, a 2016 YouGov survey commissioned by DWP found that that 50% of employers would not consider employing an offender or ex-offender (House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee 2016).  Thus, for many people, imprisonment reinforces barriers to paid work, secure housing and personal and family wellbeing; all of which are factors supportive of desistance.  


Progression – a game of snakes and ladders

An issue of particular concern to SPARC is that for those serving long or life sentences it can be incredibly difficult to progress through the system.  Progression is central to how lifers and long termers are managed. Prisoners are meant to incrementally graduate to lower levels of security, ultimately as a means to test and monitor their levels of responsibility and safety, ultimately achieving parole – a process that we have elsewhere likened to a game of snakes and laddersas many prisoners are downgraded and held back. While we know that the average tariff a person on a life sentence serves has almost doubled between 2000-2012 (Howard League Scotland, forthcoming), the number of “lifers” in Scotland who are serving time over their tariff is not routinely made publically available.

Our own advocacy/research work suggests that those who are most likely to experience delayed progression through the system are those who are already the most disadvantaged: those with addictions, poor mental health, difficulty building relationships with officers, those who are less able to advocate for themselves.  Yet, even when people in custody do face these barriers, the availability of places on courses which are required to reduce risk or move on to the next “stage” of their sentence can create considerable delays. 

This raises fundamental questions about justice, fairness and what are people in prison being punished for?  We contend that it is unacceptable for people to be held in custody solely for reasons relating to poor mental health, addictions or a lack of resources. 

This issue takes on a particular urgency and salience in Scotland because the number of sentences imposed is disproportionality high here. Speaking at the Howard League Scotland in March 2018, Professor Dirk Van Zyl Smit noted that the number of people serving life sentences has steadily risen over the last 15 years, with “lifers” accounting for 19% of the prison population.  The comparable figure across European countries is 3%, with lifers accounting for 0.9% of the prison population in France and 6% in Turkey. Indeed, Scotland has more than double the number of lifers than France (1,083 vs 489).  Together, the UK and Turkey have more lifers than the rest of Europe combined, including Russia[2].  

This is troubling for a country which, ten years ago, sought to position itself as in line with the apparently more progressive approach of the Nordic/Scandinavian jurisdictions. Professor Van Zyl Smit concluded that this raises questions about how Scotland responds to serious crimes and the utility of mandatory life sentences. These must be used only in circumstances where no other sentence will do, as the effects of being of life licence retain a person permanently within the criminal justice system, undermining their ability to return to “full” citizenship.   


Within a custodial environment instruments of care become tools of punishment 

The Prisons Commission was also critical of what it termed Scotland’s “warehousing problem”, or the unnecessary use of prison to hold people suffering from trauma, abuse, victimisation, addictions and poor mental health. 

We would agree that this is an unnecessary and unproductive use of custody which must be curtailed. However, we also want to build on this point to suggest that very often when a “care” or personal development need is identified in prison, the response is framed in terms of addressing offending behaviours e.g. expressing frustration, distress or anger may lead to a referral to anger management course; or a desire for more contact with children may lead to a parenting course. 

This is problematic because it has the effect of re-framing what are often structural problems such as poverty, or genuine health needs such as mental illness, as personal choices and failings (Kendall 2002); which can in turn warrant an additional criminal justice response.  This is perhaps seen most clearly in the response to addictions.  While we would argue this should be seen as a health issue, not least because the prison environment can exacerbate or shape drug use in particularly harmful ways[3]failing to manage or overcome an addiction can delay progress towards release, effectively imposing additional punishment on those with addictions.    


Prison harms 

Finally, and most importantly, our reliance on prison must be reduced because prison harms.

Reviews of research suggest that time in prison is itself damaging to cognitive function (Meijers et al 2015). Research on Scotland by Prof Lesley Graham has further established that those who are in prison have higher mortality rates, of two to more nearly six times higher, than those in the general population, even when controlling for social deprivation. Such work establishes, unsurprisingly, that confinement of human beings is deeply damaging, and this damage should be carefully considered.

This is reflected in the higher than average rates of drug and alcohol use and poor mental health identified by the Prisons Commission.  While detailed data on the prevalence of mental health problems in Scottish prisons has been argued to be lacking, research suggests that mental health is one of the most important health issues in prisons, with the majority of prisoners having at least one mental health problem[i](Gillies, Knifton and Dougall 2012). While areas of good practice have been identified, mental health services in prisons have been argued to be under-resourced, leading to significant unmet need[4](ibid). 

Mental health problems can be fatal.  When we look back to deaths in custody in 2013, which is the first year in which at least some of the families in question are not still awaiting the outcome of a fatal accident inquiry, seven men committed suicide and a further two died in an “Event of Undetermined Intent/Overdose”.  The deaths of these men equate to over a third of fatalities in custody in that year. 

Finally, prison also harms families and communities. Supporting a person in custody requires a considerable investment of time, money and emotional labour from families. Concerning, it can also create or exacerbate poor relationships between families and the criminal justice system, undermining both feelings of citizenship and penal legitimacy (Jardine, forthcoming).  

When we recognise this harm, we are compelled to scrutinise even the best intentioned use of imprisonment. The best way to reduce these harms is to reduce our reliance on this damaging form of punishment. 


This post is based on SPARC’s presentation at the 10thAnniversary of the Scottish Prisons Commission 

Author Information: SPARC is a research and advocacy collective who campaign for reform in the use of imprisonment in Scotland, comprising researchers at all stage of career and many with long-term, personal experience of imprisonment. 



Gillies, M., Knifton, L. & Dougall, R. (2013) Prison Health in NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde: A health needs assessment. Glasgow: NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. Accessible here:

Graham, L. (2012) Justice Committee, Transfer of prison healthcare to the NHS Written, submission from Dr Lesley Graham:

House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee (2016) Support for ex-offenders: Fifth Report of Session 2016–17, London: House of Commons.

Jardine, C. (In press) “Eroding legitimacy? The impact of imprisonment on relationships between families, communities and the criminal justice system”, in Condry, R. and Scharff-Smith, P (eds.) Prisons, Punishment and the Family: Towards a New Sociology of Punishment, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Kendall, K (2002) ‘Time to think again about cognitive behavioural programmes’ in Women and Punishment: The Struggle for Justice, Carlen, P (ed), Willan: Devon

McAra, L., & McVie, S. (2005). The Usual Suspects? Street-life, Young People and the Police. Criminal Justice5(1), 5-36. DOI: 10.1177/1466802505050977

Meijers J, Harte JM, Jonker FA and Meynen G (2015). Prison brain? Executive dysfunction in prisoners. Front. Psychol. 6:43. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00043

Scottish Government (2017) Reconviction Rates in Scotland: 2014-15 Offender Cohort Edinburgh, Scottish Government.  Accessible here:

Van Zyl Smit, D. (2018) Life imprisonment: an appropriate ultimate penalty in Scotland?, Lecture hosted by Howard League Scotland, 12 March 2018. 


[1]There is a large body or research evidencing the harm and damage caused by imprisonment.  See, for example, Kendall (2002); 


[3]For instance, a desire to avoid detection in MDT’s can encourage the use of more addictive substances or legal highs

[i]The authors note “The most comprehensive and robust data on the prevalence of psychiatric disorder in the prison population in the UK are from a 1998 Office of National Statistics study of 1,250 men and 187 women aged 16 – 64 years imprisoned in England and Wales (Table 3) [29]. The prevalence of mental disorder in the prison population was high; over 90% of prisoners had one or more psychiatric disorder (psychosis, neurosis, personality disorder, drug or alcohol dependence). Dual diagnoses were extremely common; 80% of prisoners had two or more psychiatric disorders (most commonly a major psychiatric illness and substance misuse) and 12 – 15% of prisoners had 4 or 5 co-existing disorders.” (Gillies, Knifton and Dougall 2012: 59)

Critical Issues in Scottish Penal Policy: Disclosure of Convictions

This week HLS has invited a selected group of experts to reflect upon critical issues in Scottish penal policy. Today, Dr Beth Weaver provides a clear and critical overview of Scotland’s complex spent conviction legislation and the new proposals that are intended to improve what is an unduly harsh and punitive system of disclosure. She asks do the current proposals in the Management of Offenders Bill go far enough? She outlines a humane, progressive and socially just alternative form of disclosure, one that could meaningfully reform Scotland’s spent conviction legislation and make it a world leader in penal policy and reintegration.

Are  Proposed Reforms to Criminal Records Disclosures in Scotland Going Far Enough?


A criminal record can make it harder to find a job and employers are using criminal records checks more and more. The Scottish Parliament is reviewing reforms to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA 1974) and practices of disclosure, with the aim of reducing unnecessary barriers to employment for people with convictions while promoting the protection of vulnerable groups.The purpose of the ROA 1974 is to clear the records of many people with convictions, by setting periods following a specific sentence after which the person is deemed rehabilitated and does not have to disclose their convictions (unless special circumstances apply). But it has been criticised for its lengthy rehabilitation periods. However, newreforms are proposed in the Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill. It is timely, therefore to consider the following key questions, the answers to which might inform how we think about this issue:

  • Why does this matter?
  • What is the problem?
  • What does the research say?
  • What approach do other countries take?
  • What reforms are being proposed?
  • Do these reforms go far enough? 
  • What can we do differently?


Why does this matter?

Research reveals a complex relationship between (un)employment, offending and desistance but it is generally acknowledged that employment is key to desistance and reintegration (Weaver, 2015; Weaver, 2018). However, it‘s not as straight forward as getting a job and giving up crime. This is because employment in and of itself does not cause or trigger desistance; rather it is the meaning and outcomes of either the nature and/or quality of the work or participation in employment and how these impact on people’s personal priorities or goals, their self-concept and social identity (how it changes the way the person sees themself and is seen by others) and the relationships that matter to them (Weaver, 2015). Farrall (2005) also suggests that work, and as part of that, association with a new social group, can be a mechanism for rebuilding who one is and forging who one will become.  So, the impact of work goes beyond the effects of having an income or even gaining a daily or weekly routine; ‘employment is part of the idea of what is acceptable’ (Owens 2009: 50), and communicates in itself, that you have a place in the world and a role to play – be it in society or even in one’s own family – as a reliable partner and provider or a good parent for example. 


What is the problem?

There are many and varied obstacles to people with convictions accessing and sustaining employment, among which is the stigma of a criminal record and associated vetting and disclosure practices. Evidence indicates that anticipated stigma and the repeated encountering of obstacles to obtaining employment can increase risk of reoffending, undermining desistance (Farrall, 2002; LeBel, 2012; Winnick and Bodkin, 2008) and also, therefore, public protection. If employment can support desistance and reintegration, this would suggest that public protection is increased rather than risked when barriers to employment are removed. Indeed,there is no reliable evidence to suggest that stricter vetting practices, that create barriers to employment, enhance public protection.

Underpinning much of the uncertainty around the recruitment of people with convictions is the lack of clarity as to when past convictions come to be of little or no value in the prediction of criminality, when taking into account information that is self-disclosed or revealed through formal mechanisms of disclosure. It is this uncertainty that ‘Time to Redemption’ studies seek to address.


What does the research say?

‘Time to Redemption’ studies investigate the period of time when people with convictions are statistically no more likely to offend than people with no convictions. The key question that these studies seek to answer, then, is this:

How many years of non-offending does it take for a person with convictions to resemble a person without convictions in terms of his or her probability of offending? 

These studies estimate that in general after an average of 7-10 years without a new arrest or conviction, a person’s criminal record essentially loses its predictive value (Blumstein and Nakamura, 2009; Bushway, et al., 2011; Kurlychek et al., 2006; 2007; Soothill and Francis, 2009; for a detailed review of this research, see Weaver, 2018). 

This raises questions as to why some convictions remain enduringly excluded, unspent, ostensibly for the purposes of public protection even where the evidence would suggest that the individual’s risk is statistically no longer predictive of future criminality or put differently, where that risk reflects that of the non-convicted population. Soothill and Francis (2009: 385) go as far to say that employers ‘have more to fear from the non-offending population than from those with convictions’ if those with convictions have not been reconvicted in the last ten years.

How does the UK approach differ to other countries?

European nations only disclose recent, unspent convictions and they tend to prevent private agencies, the media, and the general public from having access to criminal records; such information is considered private and confidential.By contrast, the UK allows for the disclosure of all convictions, cautions and police records (soft information) in certain contexts and situations, such as Standard and Enhanced Disclosure in Scotland. In this way the UK is an outlier, and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has criticised the UK system of disclosure for: providing no distinction on the basis of the nature of offence, the disposal of the case, the time elapsed or relevance of the data to the employment in question; that mandatory disclosure of all convictions is disproportionate and does not allow the exercise of any discretion to balance public protection and privacy; and that disclosure is not limited only to convictions.


What reforms are being proposed for Scotland?

Clearly there is a need to reform Scotland’s disclosure system. Following consultation in 2015, the Scottish Government proposed reforms to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act  by way of The Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill. The Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill’s provisions have the overall effect of restricting the disclosure of people’s criminal histories in two key ways: 

  • By generally reducing the length of time before a conviction (or other disposal) is deemed to be spent; 
  • By modifying the 1974 Act’s threshold, currently set at a custodial sentence of 30 months or longer, before a conviction never becomes spent. The Bill changes this so that a sentence of up to 48 months’ imprisonment may, in time, become spent.


Do the Scottish reforms go far enough?

Theproposed reforms, while welcomed, are limited. While across continental Europe, as noted above, only recent, unspent convictions are disclosed, Scotland will retain a more punitive disclosure system as the reforms pertain principally to basic disclosure: they make no direct changes to the higher level disclosure system concerning standard or enhanced disclosures.Thus some sentences will remain enduringly excluded, unspent, ostensibly for the purposes of public protection even where the evidence would suggest that the individual’s risk is statistically negated. Current legislation and disclosure practices do not reflect the evidence from Time to Redemption studies. Moreover, an excessively wide and complex disclosure system may actually undermine prospects for reintegration. The proposed changes, much like the current system, raises a number of questions about justice (Larrauri Pijoan 2014a) such as why, when some old convictions can be spent under the ROA, are they subject to disclosure when applying for a wide range of employment positions? Why are arrests, cautions and soft information disclosable when they are, by definition, judicially unproven? 


What can we do differently?

Scotland should adopt a holistic rather than piecemeal review of the system. This might include a system that can forget and forgive, as well as forbid participation in certain occupations and facilitate employment protection so as to promote compliance with the ECHR and allow a more rights informed and nuanced approach to the disclosure of criminal histories. 


Forgetting: Reviewing Spent Periods and the Disclosure of Enduringly Unspent Convictions: Scotland could legislate a) that all convictions should be subject to the possibility of being spent and b) that spent convictions should be automatically withheld from disclosure so the record is sealed and the person presumed rehabilitated for the purposes of employment.

Forgiving: Certificates of Rehabilitation might be issued by the state or judicial authorities in light of concrete evidence that a person has made progress towards desistance. The certificate would effectively act as a ‘letter of recommendation’ to employers.

Forbidding: Court Imposed Occupational Disqualification: at sentencing, and after an individualised assessment, a judge canprevent a convicted person from certain occupations. The idea is that employment exclusion has to be authorised in law and only in cases where there is a specific occupational disqualification order imposed by a court and not a generic criminal record.  

Facilitating: Providing Guidance and Revisions to Anti-Discrimination Legislation: supporting fair employment for people with convictionsmight be assisted by amendments to existing anti-discrimination legislation such as the Equality Act 2010. Currently, people with convictions appear to be the only group that are excluded from its protections. One implication might be that people with convictions should be legally recognised as a disadvantaged group entitled to special employment protection.

Last words

The disclosure of criminal histories has significant impacts on access to employment and potentially on prospects for desistance. The need to bring Scottish practices in closer alignment with the European Court of Human Rights has resulted in recent and ongoing reforms to both the 1974 Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and disclosure guidelines. Research strongly suggests that proposed reforms could go further. Existing laws and reforms proposed for governing disclosure retain the requirement that some spent convictions will always be disclosed in certain circumstances, irrespective of evidence. This is likely to continue contributing to risk-averse reactions from many employers and might negatively affect people’s efforts to ‘go straight’ and undermine public protection. This would suggest that no, the proposed reforms in the Management of Offenders Bill do not go far enough because they do not address their intended purposes: reducing unnecessary barriers to employment for people with convictions while promoting the protection of vulnerable groups. 



Author Information: Dr Beth Weaver is a member of the Howard League Scotland organising committee. She is a leading and renowned desistance scholar and has specific interests in user involvement and co-production and the use of through-the-prison-gate social cooperative structures of employment. All of her research has an applied focus on penal reform.

Find out more: