SCOTLAND’s prison population fell by 10 per cent in the space of a year while almost a quarter of inmates were held on remand last year, the largest ever proportion.

New statistics show that the average monthly prison population fell rapidly during the first three months of the pandemic, from around 8,000 inmates in March 2020 in a “rapid and large reduction” to just under 7,000 by June 2020.

The population then increased and broadly stabilised from September 2020 at around 7,500.

Altogether, there was an overall reduction of 10% in the average daily prison population, falling from around 8,200 in 2019-20 to 7,337 in 2020-21.

But statisticians have warned that the figures predominantly reflect the impact of the Covid pandemic on the justice system, adding that the numbers should not be interpreted as indicative of longer-term trends in the prison population.

In their analysis, statisticians said that "compliance with public health measures during the pandemic influenced operations across the criminal justice system".

As part of measures to curb the spread of Covid-19, guidelines on the use of police custody were revised while courts were forced to close or operate at reduced cpacity for large parts of the pandemic.

Prisons were also requid to ensure inmates could observe public health measures such as social distancing.

Statisticians said: "Whilst it is not yet possible to isolate the impact of the pandemic on the data, it is reasonable to conclude that the latest data is predominantly a reflection of the impact of the pandemic across the justice system, and should not be interpreted as indicative of longer-term trends."

Due to the impacts of the pandemic on the courts system, those in custody awaiting trial increased by almost 18% to 1,384 in 2020-21.

Statisticians have stressed that “these changes have shifted the balance” between those on remand and those sentenced.

They added: “In 2020-21, 22% of the prison population were held on remand on an average day – the largest proportion ever recorded.”

Time spent on remand continued to increase between 2019-20 and 2020-21.

For those who departed custody from remand, the median duration remained approximately the same at 22 days. But, while in 2019-20 90% of remand departures had occurred with 98 days, in 2020-21 this had risen to 109 days.

For those who moved from remand to being sentenced to prison time, the median time on remand rose steeply from 36 days to 55 days over the same period. In 2019-20, 90% of moves took place within 145 days but in 2020-21 this had risen to 175 days.

The average daily prison population of women fell by 26% from 402 to 300, while for men, it fell 10% from 7,793 to 7,037.

The population of young people under 21 in custody also fell by a greater amount than the overall population, reducing by around one third between 2019-20 and 2020-21, from 325 to 216.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that more than 60% of violent and sexual criminals avoided a jail sentence last year – the highest level in a decade.

Scottish Government statistics showed just 39% of those convicted of a violent crime, such as murder attempted murder, received a custodial sentence in 2020/21 – a 30% drop from the previous year.