THE numbers being held in custody without conviction has hit record levels with the length of time detained quadrupling in less than three years, leading to calls from a key Scottish solicitors group for urgent action.

The Law Society of Scotland, the trade body for over 12,000 Scottish solicitors, has expressed "deep concern" that as of July, nearly 1,900 people were being held in custody when not convicted of a crime out of a prison population of 7448.

The total numbers on remand has soared from just over 1500 at the start of 2019 to 2164 last month.

In 2019-20 the median length of time spent on remand was 21 days, now it is 87 days.

Those being held in custody on remand now account for 29% of Scotland’s prison population.

Offical figures have revealed that the proportion of the prison population held on remand in 2018-19 and in the years immediately prior was less than 20%.

When a person accused of an offence first appears in court, a judicial decision will be made whether they will be released on bail or remanded into custody. For many people, being remanded into custody is their first experience of prison.

Although a small minority (14%) of remand prisoners have already been convicted and are awaiting sentencing, the vast majority (90%) of remand prisoners are awaiting trial and thus have not been found guilty.

At the start of August, 1,861 people were in custody untried with 33.4% of those being held for more than 140 days. Another 303 were convicted but still awaiting sentence.

Last year the Covid-19 pandemic saw a significant rise of remand in Scotland, with the delay in trials causing the remand prison population to climb from 982 to 1,753 between April 2020 and April 2021.

By the end of that period some 42.6% of young people aged 16-20 in prison were on remand.

Lawyers alarm as numbers held in custody without conviction in Scotland hits record levels

Stuart Munro, convener of the Law Society of Scotland’s criminal law committee, said: “Bail and custody arrangements must balance fundamental rights to liberty as outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights with the need to protect complainers and the general public."

But he said that the Scottish Government’s proposed Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Bill is not the urgent solution that is needed to the "very serious" issue of remand numbers with half of people on remand spending three months or more in prison before their guilt or otherwise has been decided.

"It’s important to remember that while some of those held on remand will be guilty, many will not," h said.

“Some fluctuation in remand numbers is inevitable, but the current situation is largely a reflection of the ongoing court backlogs caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. These delays are causing hardship and distress for people accused of crimes and those who are affected by it.

“The unacceptably large remand population also causes serious difficulties for prison authorities, as people on remand must be held separately to other inmates, and comes at a significant cost to tax payers.”

Men make up 96% of the entire prison population, and the same proportion of those being held on remand.

In April, last year, there were 197 young people (aged 16-20) in prison in Scotland with 84 (42.6%) of them were on remand while untried. Some 18 of these were aged 16 or 17 and only three had been previously tried and convicted of an offence.

By comparison, in February, 2020 there were 305 young people in prison, of whom 74 (24.3%) had not been tried.

According to the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995, the grounds for refusing bail concern “any substantial risk” that the accused might, if granted bail, abscond, commit offences,or interfere with witnesses or otherwise obstruct the course of justice.

In deciding on bail, the court “must have regard to all material considerations”, including the nature and seriousness of the alleged offence, the probable disposal of the case if the person was convicted, the accused’s character and previous history, including any previous convictions or contraventions of bail orders and their associations and community ties.

In deciding on bail, the court “must have regard to all material considerations”, including the nature and seriousness of the alleged offence, the probable disposal of the case if the person was convicted, the accused’s character and previous history, including any previous convictions or contraventions of bail orders and their associations and community ties.

In January the justice secretary said that credible and consistent alternatives to prison sentences were needed to cut the number of people being sent to jail.

Keith Brown said there was a widespread acceptance that "for some people, prison is not the best place for them".

He acknowledged that community service options could be improved and "we've got a job on our hands to do that".

Mr Brown said better use of community justice sentences could not only keep prisoner numbers down but also be effective at reducing reoffending.

Scottish ministers launched a consultation on the reform of bail and custody measures in November last year.

One proposal includes explicitly requiring a court to consider electronic monitoring before it refuses bail.

Another question asks if short-term inmates should be automatically released sooner.

Currently, they are released halfway though their sentence.

On 14 February 2020, before the pandemic began to have an effect on prisons in Scotland, the prison population stood at 8,027, and the untried remand population at 1,293 (16.1%).

In the early months of the pandemic, both the overall prison population and the untried remand population reduced, for instance to 7,339 and 982 on April 10, 2020.

In February, 2020, before the pandemic began to have an effect on prisons in Scotland, the prison population stood at 8,027, and the untried remand population was at 1,293 (16.1%).

But by February, last year, the untried remand population had risen to 1,747 (23.6%) out of a total population of 7,394.