In or out? What is being done to reduce Scotland’s prison population?

Scotland’s prison population has been the subject of much debate in the Parliament in recent years. The efficacy of imprisonment as a way of reducing reoffending has also been widely debated and will no doubt continue to be in Session 5. The following paragraphs provide a snapshot of some of the work which has been undertaken recently in an effort to reduce Scotland’s prison population.

Prison population

The average daily population in prison in Scotland rose by 15% between 2005-06 and 2013-14 (Figure 15).  In 2007, the Scottish Government established the Scottish Prisons Commission to take stock of the problems and to develop solutions to a seemingly ever-increasing prison population. In examining how the issue of prison numbers might be tackled, a number of facts emerged to underline the scale and complexity of the problem. For example, it was found that, as a proportion of the population, Scotland imprisons more people than many other countries in Europe; the prison population has increased in every year of this Century and was projected to reach 8,700 inmates by 2016; high prison populations do not reduce crime and they are more likely to create pressures that drive reoffending than to reduce it.

Average daily population in penal establishments in Scotland, 2005-06 and 2013-14


Source: SPICe, based on data from the Scottish Government 2015a

Short custodial sentences

One of the key features driving the increase in prison populations was the use of short custodial sentences. The Commission found that, in 2005-06, eighty three per cent of all custodial sentences passed were for 6 months or less and that, for the most part, these sentences were not dealing with serious crimes. The Commission recommended that the Scottish Government should bring forward legislation to require a sentencing judge, who would otherwise have imposed a custodial sentence of 6 months or less, to impose a community sentence instead. The Scottish Government responded by bringing forward legislation in 2010.


The Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 introduced, for the first time into Scots law, a presumption against short periods of imprisonment. As it currently stands, the presumption provides that a court must not pass a sentence of imprisonment for a term of 3 months or less (less than the period recommended by the Commission) unless the court considers that no other method of dealing with the person is appropriate.

The presumption is intended to highlight to the court the need to only use short prison sentences as a last resort, and that community disposals should be favoured where possible. It should be noted that it is a presumption, not a ban, and it is for the sentencing judge to decide on the most appropriate sentence based on the facts and circumstances in any given case. In 2014-15, sixty six per cent of all custodial sentences passed were for 6 months or less – a reduction of seventeen per cent from 2005-06.


The 2010 Act also enables the Scottish Ministers to substitute another number of months for the number currently specified in legislation – this would be done by way of secondary legislation. To that end, the Scottish Government recently consulted on whether the current presumption against sentences of three months or less should be extended and if so, by how much (Scottish Government 2015b); and whether a more radical review of the presumption against short sentences and the use of short-term imprisonment, including the use of remand, is required. For example, should consideration be given to whether particular types of offences should never result in a custodial sentence?

Women offenders

In June 2011, the Scottish Government established the independent Commission on Women Offenders. The Commission reported in 2012. The report found that the female prison population in Scotland had doubled in the preceding ten years.  It recognised that many women in the criminal justice system are frequent reoffenders with complex needs that relate to their social circumstances, previous histories of abuse and mental health and addiction problems.  As such, the report identified an urgent need for action to reduce the number of women reoffending and going to prison.

At the time of the report, HMP Cornton Vale was Scotland’s only all-female prison. The Commission concluded that Cornton Vale was not fit for purpose with overcrowding causing significant problems for the management and staff, which inhibited opportunities to rehabilitate women and reduce their reoffending on release. The Commission recommended that the prison should close, to be replaced with a smaller specialist prison for those women offenders serving a statutory defined long-term sentence and those who present a significant risk to the public.

Initially, the Scottish Government intended to build a new, large national prison as a replacement but, on further consideration, decided instead to adopt a new approach to dealing with female offenders with a move towards custody in the community, backed by targeted support to address underlying issues and action to reduce the numbers of women receiving custodial sentences. Under plans unveiled by Justice Secretary Michael Matheson, a new small national prison with 80 places will be created, alongside five smaller community-based custodial units each accommodating up to 20 women across the country. The smaller community-based custodial units will provide accommodation as women serve out their sentence, with access to intensive support to help overcome issues such as alcohol, drugs, mental health and domestic abuse trauma which evidence shows can often be a driver of offending behaviour. The units will be located in areas close to the communities of female offenders so that family contact can be maintained.

Graham Ross


Scottish Government. (2015a) Prison Statistics and Population Projections Scotland: 2013-14. Available at – [Accessed 4 May 2016]

Scottish Government (2015b) Consultation on Proposals to Strengthen the Presumption against Short Periods of Imprisonment. Available at –