The curious drop in prison population during Covid-19

The prison population seems to have fallen in the absence of formal action to reduce it.

What has happened and why?

Prison pop overall
Source: all prisons data from SPS web reported Prison Population; charts created by SPARC

The Scottish prison population has decreased significantly and rapidly since the UK Government announced lockdown measures in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. By the end of April 2020 it stood at 7,176 (weekly average at 24 April), down from 8,213 a year ago (at 20 April 2019). The impact of Covid on this decline is unmistakable. Over 80% of this decrease has happened in the last month alone. In this month (from 20 March to 24 April) the average daily prison population has dropped by 10%. Compare this to the previous 11 months, during which there was an aggregate decline of 3%. Overall, there were, on average, 839 fewer people in prison the week of 24 April than there were during the week of 20 March. That is the size of a large Scottish prison.

Changes in types of imprisonment

The average number of sentenced prisoners in the population fell by 358 while the number of remand prisoners decreased by 220 in the month covered by pandemic lockdown.

Among those classified as remand prisoners, the decline has been sharpest among those who are convicted but awaiting sentence.

Untried (lefthand y-axis); Convicted awaiting sentence (righthand y-axis)

A presumption against use of HDC was announced 10 April 2020 (see SPARC Covid-19 timeline), and HDC use has increased only slightly since then. It had already been rising since the start of lockdown, but the numbers are still very low (a high of 64 HDC prisoners in mid April) compared to its former level of use (averaging 300-350 people on HDC pre-2019).

Changes in Court Business

Court business is beginning to show some change, with a decline in cases before the highest volume criminal courts: Sheriff Summary business and Justice of the Peace courts. An historically high and rising level of cases being prosecuted involving sexual offences has meant High Court and Sheriff Solemn court business remains unchanged.

Third Quarter Criminal Court Cases and Change since Second Quarter

N% change
All Courts first instance cases25,815-3.4%
High Court indictments274No chg
Sheriff Solemn petitions2,492No chg
Sheriff Summary complaints 16,138-4%
JoP cases registered7965-4%
Third quarter numbers and percentage change compared to the second quarter of 2019/20
Source: Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service statistics

Scottish Ministers so far have not exercised newly legislated powers to allow early releases from prison to contain/prevent Covid-19 infection, so what explains this remarkable drop?

Factors affecting prison population

Input factors

Recorded Crime and Arrests: Media reports that 2,700 (or 1 in 6) police were off sick/absent at the end of March 2020 and that this is higher than usual absence levels. Media reports also have claimed recorded crime is down (which is partly determined by police numbers) by 25% overall, with 40% decrease in serious assaults and 30% decrease in break-ins.

Use of Remand: SPARC reported on 31 March rumours Procurator Fiscals have been open to more bail requests, and willing not to push for remand. The biggest percentage drop has been in people who were remanded following conviction to await sentence, possibly reflecting less PF opposition to defence requests.

Court cases and sentencing trends: The busiest criminal courts are seeing reduced business, but the courts hearing serious cases most likely to result in the longest periods in detention are not. The recently implemented presumption against short sentences (PASS) of 12 months or less may be having an impact generally; a report reviewing sentencing between July-December 2019 showed there was a drop in sentences of 12 months or less, and no increase in sentences just over 12 months.

Changes in the sentenced population in prison: No data during Covid-19 is currently published on sentences. The Scottish Government stopped publishing detailed information showing prison population breakdowns by length of sentence in 2013-14.

Parole recalls: The Parole Board for Scotland has not published data on releases during Covid-19. 

Community sentence breaches: Data have not been published on numbers of community sentence breaches resulting in custodial sentence. Any changes in this would affect sentences at the short end of the scale and unlikely to have major impact on overall prison population numbers.

Output factors

HDC: HDC use has slightly increased but the numbers are too small to impact overall prison population.

Parole releases: SPARC have heard from insiders that more people are getting parole on first attempt, but official numbers on decisions during Covid-19 have not been published.

Discretionary releases: Emergency Covid-19 legislation now allows some release; these have not yet been exercised as of 1 May 2020.

What can we learn from prison population reduction during Covid-19?

Prison population reduction in the absence of prison reform. It is stunning to see massive population change achievable where major reform efforts have so far had little (or counterproductive) impact. The more optimistic lesson is to see that reducing prison populations is possible, just as we have seen positive impacts on air quality and the environment generally where years of climate agreements have failed to achieve targets.

Prosecutors have great power over prison population size, and this is almost entirely ignored in policy and research. They can oppose or encourage bail and influence sentencing, as we have been hearing from insiders. 

We need data. To understand changing population numbers and to fulfil democratic government’s duty of transparency and accountability, accurate and current data is needed. This is more urgent where people are in state custody, in which the state effectively exercises the power of life and death. We commend whoever in SPS is continuing to publish weekly prison population data. We strongly criticise the lack of an official statistics publication on prison population for the past five years. We urgently request that agencies prioritise collection and reporting of data which can allow for analysis of populations, especially given that rights monitoring has effectively been suspended in Scottish prisons.