convictions and citizenship

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


Proposed Advances in Electronic Monitoring

The Scottish government recently introduced the Managment of Offenders (Scotland) Bill. HLS cautiously welcomes the proposed changes to electronic monitoring as a means to directly and assertively reduce Scotland’s troublingly high imprisonment rate. Our wariness, however, is rooted in our concerns about criminal justice net-widening. As we recently wrote, an increase in community sentences over the last decade has not impacted the rate at which Scottish courts give prison sentences. Moreover, the expansion and refinement of electronic monitoring (EM) poses other potential issues for social justice, desistance and citizenship, which HLS remains apprehensive about.

Part of the appeal of EM is that it is considerably cheaper than prison. However, there needs to be sound penological reasons underpinning its use and development. The Scottish government have made it clear that they are interested in reducing re-offending. As a tracking technology EM has no inherent rehabilitative capacities, however, and we are concerned that expanding its use may in fact undermine criminal justice social work. EM cannot replace the human contact and the positive relationship between a social worker and their supervisee. The encouragement and guidance provided by probation can be vital in supporting a person’s rehabilitation, this includes helping someone access education and employment, secure housing and address addiction. Moreover, EM cannot counter the other issues that often underlie offending, namely, socially inequality and lack of opportunities. Monitoring should not be misrepresented as centrally a tool for rehabilitation. Its use, therefore, should be only one among a suite of community supervision and rehabilitation measures.

If that becomes the case, and EM is but one tactic in an integrated programme of community supervision and surveillance, then the severity of punishment for breaching EM should remain in question. If a person who is tagged is generally succeeding in meeting the broader demands of supervision and desistance, we need to seriously consider if breach of EM curfews and exclusion areas should automatically cause a recall to prison.

HLS are also particularly concerned about the proposed creation of exclusion zones that could range "from a house, to specific street patterns, to a neighbourhood, to a whole city. GPS also allows more than one exclusion zone to be set. Using GPS technology to set exclusion zones can help create safe spaces for victims of crime", according to the Scottish government. We worry that a desire for effective and cheaper forms of criminal justice and community protection are superseding more ethical and social concerns about citizenship and reintegration. When people are denied access to large areas of public space, like city centres, it sends a clear statement that they do not belong here, that they do not deserve equal membership of Scottish society. When we block people from full social and civic association we degrade their citizenship as we make people criminal for moving through public spaces. We also blur the lines between the community and the prison. We strongly resist any suggestion that cities and neighbourhoods should be carved up into permitted territories and no-go zones. This has the long-term potential to create a community justice culture of security and exclusion in Scotland, rather than a culture of reintegration and social inclusion.

Relatedly, we know that in Scotland, like elsewhere, people sentenced to prison are largely drawn from the most disadvantaged communities. If the use of EM follows this pattern – and those being tagged and GPS tracked are concentrated in the most marginalised areas – the Scottish government risks converting neighbourhoods that are already hindered by social exclusion into prison-like places, where large sections of the population have restricted movement and liberty. Any attempt to reduce prison numbers and achieve the aims of social justice is seriously undermined if EM inadvertently creates communities of confinement across Scotland.

Any form of tagging and monitoring should be developed with these concerns in mind. EM can support rehabilitation, offer community protection and keep people within their families. But achieving the goals of community justice while mitigating the serious social and civic risks will require a delicate and critical balance. To begin to address some of these issues, and emphasise EM’s potential strengths, longer periods of supervision could be organised on a graded system, becoming increasingly less onerous, with stipulations and exclusions reduced, as time passes. As the Council of Europe wrote, ‘EM can certainly be used in ways which make an offender feel trusted, an important ingredient in the rehabilitation process’. Finally, long-term research is needed to carefully monitor the economic, rehabilitative and qualitative impact of EM on individuals, communities and Scottish civic life.

Read More:

The Scotsman: Scottish criminals ‘could be barred from entire cities’
BBC News: Use of electronic tags to be extended
Iriss (2017) Electronic monitoring in the criminal justice system



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.

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