In Scotland, prisoners sentenced to less than four years qualify for automatic early release once they have served two-thirds of their sentence, but can be recalled to jail if their behaviour in the community “gives cause for concern”. The revelation in the annual report of the Parole Board for Scotland that 212 offenders on automatic early release caused just such concern last year, and 150 of them were recalled to prison, will reinforce a growing unease that the justice system is neither transparent nor providing sufficient protection to the public. Although it can be argued that the fact these offenders were reported and recalled indicates the system is working, that will not assuage the natural disquiet when a sentence handed down in court does not equate to the sentence actually served.

The rest of the parole board’s report, however, tells a significantly different story. Only 12 of the 227 prisoners released on licence, with terms set by the board (those serving more than four years), were considered for recall and nine of them returned to prison. That is a welcome indication that by and large the board is making the right judgment when allowed to do so. Release on parole for those convicted of more

serious offences is far from a foregone conclusion: 36% of those on determinate sentences referred for parole last year were released and only 52 of 209 life prisoners considered were released on licence.

However, a vital factor is that prisoners paroled on licence must comply with conditions set on an individual basis to minimise risk. This requires specialist supervision and guidance and, therefore, has a cost, but that is far less than keeping someone in custody and, in helping the offender establish a settled life, makes re-offending less likely.

The success of the parole system with longer-term prisoners compared with the substantially higher default rate of those gaining automatic early release must raise the question of whether prisoners serving less than four years should be required to go through an assessment procedure. The disadvantages would be the additional costs of screening and the extra numbers our already overcrowded prisons would have to accommodate.

The possibility of parole is an important incentive to long-term prisoners because it makes good behaviour worthwhile and increases the possibility of custody providing rehabilitation as well as punishment. If early release for

shorter-term prisoners was dependent on addressing problem behaviour, it could significantly reduce re-offending. As Sandy Cameron, chairman of the Parole Board, observes: “Offenders who have been causing concern in custody seem to be much more likely to give cause for concern after being returned to the community.” It is time to reconsider automatic early release.