Ban on automatic early release

The ban on automatic early release for sex offenders will show that politics, rather than evidence, shapes Scottish penal policy. Internationally, between 4% and 30% those imprisoned for sexual offences are reconvicted of another crime (not necessarily sexual in nature); a reoffending rate that is lower than other serious violent offenders. Unlike most other crimes, however, sex offences marshal vitriolic public responses. Debates and discussions tend to become steered by highly emotional and punitive perspectives, and it would be easy for these views to become entrenched in Scottish penal policy as well. The heat which resonates from public debates should not stop us from leading more reasoned and informed discussions of penal policy. Without reference to the evidence and research we risk developing prison policy which runs counter to possible best practice.  Bench et al, reflecting on their extensive longitudinal study of sex offender reoffending rates, remark on how divorced our conceptions of risk and sex offenders are in comparison to the empirical reality, writing that ‘The current interest in sex offenses has spawned assumptions about the behavior of sex offenders that are contrary to the findings of numerous empirical studies showing that sex offender recidivism is surprisingly low’ (2013:424).

Speaking of the blanket ban on early release for sex offenders in Ireland, O’Donnell et al write that it ‘makes it difficult to incentivize them to participate in treatment programmes. However, we know that periods of parole are typically short, measured in months rather than years, and that sex offenders are unlikely to recidivate soon after release (Friendship and Thornton, 2001). If the assessment of risk is to play a role in the determination of parole then this must redound to the advantage of sex offenders’ (2008: 138).

We know that supervised release back into the community supports desistance; easing the difficult post-prison transition as well as providing mechanisms of continued criminal justice monitoring for the protection for public safety. Moreover, the ‘community management of sex offenders can be done safely in the majority of cases if the right things are done and done well’ (Kemshall 2012).

A sizeable challenge then faces Scottish politicians and policymakers: to run the gauntlet of media misrepresentation and the heat of public ire regarding sex offences (and lest we forget, a reaction which is often rooted in compassion as much as punitvism), and ignite a discussion about the aims of prison and supervision for sex offenders which is evidence-led.


Find out more:

Scotland: Recidivism amongst Serious Violent and Sexual Offenders


Bench, L. and Allen, T.D (2013) Assessing Sex Offender Recidivism Using Multiple Measures: A Longitudinal Analysis, in The Prison Journal, 93(4):411-428.

Friendship, C. and D. Thornton (2001) ‘Sexual Reconviction for Sex Offenders Released from Prison in England and Wales: Implications for Evaluating Treatment’, British Journal of Criminology 41(2): 285–92.

Howard League Scotland, Proposal to end automatic early release.

O’Donnell, I., Baumer, E.P. and Hughes, N (2008) Recidivism in the Republic of Ireland, in Criminology and Criminal Justice 8(2):123-146.

Kemshall, K. Presentation made to Members of the Legislative Assembly, Stormont, April24th, 2012, sponsored by NIACRO: Public Protection: What works in the safe management of sexual offenders?.

Scottish Government: Bill to End Automatic Early Release.

Scottish Parliament Information Centre: Prisoners (Control of Release) (Scotland) Bill







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