Justice secretary talks of 'worrying rise' in prison population during pandemic
The justice secretary has expressed concern about a rising prison population against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic.
Humza Yousaf made his remarks giving evidence at Holyrood’s Justice Committee, when asked by Scottish Labour’s James Kelly how he could give assurances that prisoner safety would still be a priority with prisoner numbers on the rise and the greater use of double occupancy of cells.
Yousaf said: “It’s the question that takes up a significant amount of my time. There was always going to be a rise in the prison population, without a shadow of a doubt, when court business began to resume.
“What’s worrying me is certainly the pace of that increase and what we can do in order to mitigate it.
“We certainly cannot go back to levels where we were pre-pandemic, which was above 8,000 – I think we were at peak at 8,100. We just cannot go back to that situation for very good reasons, humane reasons, but also clearly for public health reasons. It would unacceptable to go up to that level.
“We’re exploring a range of options to try to mitigate against that.”
He noted that numbers released under home detention curfew (HDC) – where convicted people serve part of their sentence in the community while wearing an electronic tag – had gone up, but were not high enough and stressed that he would like to see numbers increase, adding that reducing the remand population was also important. He expected to see numbers on remand reduce as sheriff and jury trials resume.
He continued: “Ultimately as a last resort – and I would only ever consider it as I’ve said before as a last resort - there could be another early release scheme although it’s not something I’m actively exploring at the moment. It’s always an option under the legislation that does exist.
“But what I cannot have is a situation where our prison population goes back to levels where it was pre-pandemic because James Kelly is absolutely right to say there are concerns about how humane that is outwith a pandemic but because of the real issues that would raise during a pandemic.”
The Scottish prison population was above 8,000 pre-pandemic, dropping to 6,900 due to the early release scheme prompted by coronavirus but has risen to 7,300 again following the resumption of trials.
Around 80 or 90 individuals are on HDC now, compared to around 40 at the time of the COVID outbreak.
Teresa Medhurst, interim chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service, said that with the population below 7,000, the service had been able to ensure 85 per cent single occupancy, but with numbers rising, double occupancy of cells was also increasing.
Earlier, the committee heard that it could take up to 10 years to clear some of the backlog in cases arising from lockdown, without further investment and innovation.
Eric McQueen, chief executive of the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service paid tribute to the work of his colleagues in getting criminal trials, including jury trials, working once again, but said there was going to be a need for “ongoing investment” from the Scottish Government to deal with the backlog.
He spoke of particular backlogs in criminal justice, noting that prior to lockdown, 390 cases were waiting to go to trial which he stressed was not a backlog but a normal number of cases queuing. But that was anticipated to rise to 750 by the end of August, with the potential to rise over two or three years to up to 1400.
Following the announcement last week of 16 trial centres being established in cinema complexes, potentially by October, he expected that the figure would plateau at around 800. However, if the number of trial courts could be increased to 25, he anticipated that it would bring the number back to “normal levels” within two years.
In sheriff courts, prior to lockdown, 14,000 cases were waiting to come to court; by the end of August the figure was expected to be 27,000. With 33 trial courts a day running, he expected it would take eight or 10 years to return to pre-trial levels.
Backlogs were much less severe in civil business.