SCOTLAND’S prison population has risen sharply over the last two years despite Government attempts to reduce the number of inmates serving short sentences.

Official statistics show the average daily population increased almost 10 per cent between 2017/18 and 2019/20, from 7,464 to 8,195.

The increase was driven by adult men and by prisoners serving more than a year in jail. 

Although the overall number of people being sent to prison has fallen in the long-term, inmates are spending longer in custody because of court and parole board decisions.

Since 2010/11, the number of people sent to prison has fallen 15% from 20,407 to 17,294 in 2019/20.

However the average length of time spent in custody has increased since 2010/11, with the proportion of individuals leaving prison after a year or more rising from 7% to 10%, and the proportion leaving after three months or less falling from 70% to 58%.

In recent years, the number of prisoners spending more than a year has increased rapidly.

The number spending the whole of 2017/18 in jail was 2,909 while 14,429 spent part of the year behind bars.

However in 2019/20, there were 3,417 ‘full -year’ prisoners and 13,877 ‘part-year’ ones.

A presumption against courts sentencing people to three months began in February 2011, and this was extended to 12 months or less last July.

Although sheriffs and JPs can still impose short sentences, this can only happen when they consider “no other sentence is appropriate” and must explain their reasons for doing so. 

The number of young offenders has fallen steadily over the last decade, from 865 in 2010/11 to 326 in 2019/20, while the female prison population has remained steady at around 400.

However the adult male population has grown and the prison population has also aged.

The average age of inmates has risen from 31.8 years in 2010/11 to 35.9 years in 2019-20.

The proportion aged 55 or over has more than doubled in the last decade, from 3.3% to 7%.

The poor and the homeless also make up a significant part of the prison population.

Individuals from the most deprived 10% of the country are over-represented in prison arrivals by a factor of three – a finding consistent across the last decade.

The proportion of homeless individuals arriving in jail has rise from 4.4% to 7.5% over the last decade.

The imprisonment rate for people who identify as African, Caribbean or Black (6.1 to 10.2 per 1,000), or from ‘Other ethnic’ groups (5.6 to 9.0 per 1,000), is significantly higher than for people who identify as White (3.7 to 3.9 per 1,000).

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “While sentencing decisions are a matter for the independent judiciary and decisions about release on licence are for the Parole Board for Scotland, these figures indicate that those who commit serious crimes and pose a risk of harm to the public are spending longer in prison than previously.  

“Scotland’s prison officers and others working with them play a tremendous role in challenging behaviours in custody and in many cases changing lives for the better, thereby helping to keep our communities safe in the long run.

“However, there is still a large proportion of men and women in custody given very short prison terms for less serious offences.  

“While such decisions are made based on the facts and circumstances before the Sheriff or Judge, we know that people released from a short prison sentence of 12 months or less are reconvicted nearly twice as often than those sentenced to serve community payback orders (CPOs), the most commonly used community sentence.  

“That is why the Scottish Government will continue to encourage the use of more effective community interventions, which also allow an appropriate level of supervision, without the disruptive and often counterproductive impacts of imprisonment, such as losing a job to support your family, losing your home or the close and positive contact with loved ones.

“While these figures reflect progress in reducing youth crime over the last decade, they also underline the continued over-representation of people from Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities. 

“That is why the solutions for further success lie not just within Scotland’s justice system but across society. Our clear focus on issues which can influence offending behaviour – including through early intervention, prevention and community-based disposals – remains the right one.”