CRIMINALS will only be held in prisons “where they present a risk of serious harm” under a vision published by SNP ministers.

Justice Secretary Keith Brown set out his government’s strategy for overhauling the justice system which points to a need to “redefine the role of custody” to acknowledge the “damaging impact of prison”.

As of December 15, statistics show that 2,178 people were being held in custody on remand – including 1,837 people awaiting trial and 341 convicted by awaiting sentencing.

The blueprint says that “while there will always be a place for prisons”, SNP ministers want to “shift the balance to ensure the role of custody will be reserved only when no alternative is appropriate”.

The strategy hands victims a more prominent role in cases, with a pledge for fewer delays in seeking justice and more support.

More focus will also be placed on attempting to prevent violence against women and girls and ensuring access to Bairns’ Hoose for every child victim or witness who needs it.

Mr Brown said: “This strategic blueprint sets out key priority areas including improving the experience of women and girls in a justice system historically designed by men, taking forward reform to address inequalities.

“It also stresses the need for a fresh look at the use of custody and firmly puts victims and the needs of victims at its centre.”

Mr Brown also said reforms would include establishing a victims’ commissioner to improve the experiences of people who suffer from crimes and community-based punishments rather than prison for many offenders.

Suggesting that “community interventions are more effective than short prison sentences”, Mr Brown said: “We can have the puerile practice of trying to look tough on crime after crime has happened – and that’s after victims have suffered – by locking more people up for longer periods and building more and bigger prisons, paid for presumably by slashing police numbers by around 17,000.

“But not tough enough to make sure that the difficult decisions which are required which will actually lead to less crime being committed, and that means fewer victims and less suffering.”

Scottish Labour’s Pauline McNeill said victims of sexual crimes often “feel treated as criminals” as she called for accusers to have access to more information and contact from the courts as their case progresses.

She added: “The report notes Barlinnie has been operating at more than 40% over capacity in the last couple of years, but I actually think it’s a lot longer than that.

“But the vision also notes that international evidence suggests that remand is associated with negative effects that may hinder longer term risks from crime including an increased risk of suicide, mental distress, disintegration of social supports and family ties, and disruption to employment that increase the likelihood of reoffending upon release.

“So, no one should need any convincing that one of the jobs we must do in this Parliament is reduce the remand population and we need to tackle this urgently."

Responding to the announcement for the Scottish Conservatives, the party’s justice spokesman, Jamie Greene, said there were “perennial problems” which have not been addressed by ministers “promising action, but under delivering for the victims of crime”.