SNP ministers are considering giving themselves powers to release entire groups of prisonsers “in response to exceptional circumstances” – amid growing fears the backlog of court cases court add further pressure to jails already struggling with capacity issues.

The Conservatives have warned that a proposal that could mean those serving long-term sentences could be let out after serving just a third of their sentence and those serving short sentences being automatically released on the same time-frame are "reckless".

The Scottish Government has launched a consultation on how custody is used as part of the criminal justice system and has published proposals that would potentially lead to some prisoners being able to be released earlier than the current halfway mark.

The plans include looking at giving certain categories of prisoner the “ability to demonstrate their suitability for earlier release” or “to serve the remainder of their sentence in the community”, as well as “bringing forward the point at which short-term prisoners are automatically released”.

The consultation also suggests “bringing forward the point at which long-term prisoners can first have their case heard by the parole board”.

The Justice Secretary has warned that officials “cannot simply keep using imprisonment to address wider societal harms”, adding that “in some cases such use can exacerbate the harm”.

Responses to the consultation will inform legislation, with a Bill scheduled for introduction in the first year of this Parliament.

The document also states that the Scottish Government is “seeking views on whether Scottish ministers should have an executive release function which would enable them to release groups of eligible prisoners in response to exceptional circumstances”.

The consultation says the aim of this measures would be “ensuring the ongoing security and good order of prisons and the health and wellbeing of prisoners and prison staff”.

Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson, Jamie Greene, said: “These reckless soft-touch justice proposals from the SNP Government are making prison sentences almost meaningless.

“If the SNP truly wanted to do something for victims, they would back the Scottish Conservatives’ calls to end automatic early release.

“Instead, they are intent on letting rapists and killers back on our streets after serving only a small fraction of their sentence.

“The SNP Government must stop stacking the odds in criminals’ favour and start putting victims first.”

Speaking to MSPs last week, Justice Secretary Keith Brown said the prison population in Scotland was little under 8,000 inmates – adding that a “substantial increase in remand”, due to the hold-up ion cases is “producing a big demand on prisons”.

He added: “As the backlog is cleared, that will increase the number of convicted prisoners and that will increase the population.”

Mr Brown told MSPs that due to the “backlog of the cases and the nature of the cases”, including many cases of a sexual nature, “that will result in more people being in prison”.

Other proposals in the consultation include amending or replacing the current model of home detention curfew, providing courts with the ability to determine the proportion of a custodial sentence that an individual should serve in the community and altering current flexible release arrangements so that release no longer happens on a Friday or in advance of a public to ensure people leaving prison can access support at the point of release.

Mr Brown said “Our overarching aim for the justice system in Scotland is to improve public safety, support victims and reduce rates of victimisation. The proposals in this consultation support that aim. We cannot simply keep using imprisonment to address wider societal harms. Indeed, in some cases such use can exacerbate the harm.

“This consultation asks important questions about how custody should be used in Scotland now and in the future, with a focus on reducing crime and reoffending and keeping people safe.

“Keeping our communities protected is our number one priority and these principles underpin the reforms we are consulting on.

“I would encourage as many people as possible to give us their views as we continue to shape a modern and progressive Scottish justice system.”

Karyn McCluskey, chief executive of Community Justice Scotland, said: “The total number of people on remand in Scotland is far too high, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic. There needs to be fewer people held on remand and for shorter periods.

“Periods of custody, especially on remand, can have devastating emotional, psychological, and financial impacts. People are separated from their communities, children, removed from support networks and can be driven into debt and homelessness.

“Remand is an essential tool but we should think carefully about how it is used. We need to look at different ways to keep people in the community and to support them to not reoffend. This includes ensuring people have access to the right support before and after they leave prison.

“I urge you to respond to the Scottish Government’s new bail and release consultation which highlights important issues and draw on the best evidence of what works to prevent offending, repair lives and improve communities.”