New legislation has been approved by the Scottish Government to allow prisoners early release from custody due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Justice Secretary confirmed the legislation would allow up to 450 prisoners to be released, using a very strict criteria.
Laid before parliament on Monday afternoon, the legislation will free up more prison cells, allowing for single-use occupancy to help control the spread of coronavirus.
Only those prisoners who have been sentenced to 18 months or less and who, as of May 4, have 90 days or less left to serve in custody will be eligible.
Restrictions will also be in place to exclude certain groups of prisoners based on previous offences.
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “Scotland’s prisons have implemented significant changes in recent weeks, ending family visits and limiting time spent out of cells, and I am extremely grateful to the dedication and professionalism of all those working in such challenging environments.
“By releasing a number of short-term prisoners a few weeks, and at most 90 days, ahead of their due release date, we will ensure there is capacity to safely manage the still large number of people in custody across the prison estate.”
He continued: “Public protection is paramount and there will be a ‘triple lock’ set of restrictions.
“Firstly, our emergency legislation, already passed by Parliament, automatically excludes those in prison for the most serious crimes, including sexual or terrorism offences.
“Secondly, the subsequent regulations now exclude anyone who is serving a prison sentence for a Covid-19-related offence, or is currently or has recently been imprisoned for domestic abuse.
“Thirdly, each prison governor will have a veto over the release of any otherwise eligible prisoner if they have a concern for the safety of an identified individual in the community.”
Mr Yousaf added this was not a decision taken lightly and he said it does not diminish the experiences of victims of crime.
He added: “I and my officials are engaging closely with victims’ organisations to ensure we continue to meet their needs as best we can in these challenging times.
“We continue to invest in and support their work, as well as that of police as they too support victims of crime and keep communities safe.
“We are also extending the victim notification scheme to ensure that victims who are registered with the scheme will be notified about the early release of a prisoner.”
Howard League Scotland, an independent penal reform organisation, said: “Covid-19 has changed our behaviour and thinking in ways we could never have envisaged and so this emergency release shouldn’t be seen as a measure of anything like the same magnitude as shutting schools or restricting travel.
“It’s a sensible first step which has been taken to ease the intolerable pressure in Scotland’s prisons and to avert a public health crisis.”