Today the Council of Europe has issued its latest version of its annual snapshot of prison populations around Europe (the Prisons and Prisoners in Europe: 2021). It does not make pleasant reading for Scotland.
The report covers the 47 European countries who participated (five did not). There’s a lot of information in the report but it is mostly encapsulated by one table, the proportion of the population in jail per 100,000 of the population.
This (unsurprisingly) is topped by Russia. In fact, it is entirely led by former Soviet nations plus Turkey, going Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Slovak Republic, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland Estonia, Albania, Latvia and Moldova. And then… Scotland.
That means Scotland is the only Western European nation in the top third of the league table. (England and Wales misses out by a whisker as do Montenegro, Ukraine, Spain, Catalonia and Romania). When it comes to jailing its population Scotland leaves countries like North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Croatia in its wake.
For every 100,000 of population Scotland jails about 135 people (precisely 134.9 with Montenegro and England and Wales just behind that on 134.7 and 131.5 respectively). It is common to then compare us with the Nordic countries, and doing so is stark – if you take out the three tiny countries of Liechtenstein, Monaco and Iceland, Finland has the best track record of keeping its population out of prison at 43.3.
Scotland jails more than three times as many people as Finland, but the Nordic comparators always look bad so where else can we look? A strong comparator might be Northern Ireland, a country which has not had and does not have its own domestic criminal justice problems. The prison population in Northern Ireland per 100,000 of population is 73.8, roughly half that of Scotland.
But Scotland does land on the European median (exact middle point) on one measure – the age of our prison population. Given our imprisonment rates we appear to be jailing a comparatively young population of inmates (though we do have a big spike in the prison population if you look only at over-65s where we rank seventh).
The only two comparators where we look OK are the proportion of prisoners who are women (4.1 per cent of the prison population) and in those jailed for drug offences (where we’re below the European median).
We have one of the worst prisoner density records (number of prisoners per available prison place) being in the top quartile at 12th. And a statistic that stands out is that we have an awful lot more of our prison population which is not serving a final sentence (on remand) than in England and Wales (26.2 per cent compared to 14.6 per cent).
Scotland seem to create the conditions for crime and then take a particularly punitive approach with high rates of remand, short sentences and poor rehabilitation
There is also evidence that Scotland has a substantial ‘revolving door’ problem with short sentences and repeat offenders but it isn’t safe to draw detailed conclusions because Scotland collects data in a way that makes it not directly comparable with the rest of Europe.
But it’s that first conclusion that stands out – go to Table B on page 4 in the main report (or page 17 in the Key Points report), have a look at that key statistic (proportion of total population) and look at the countries with whom Scotland is clustered in the ‘very high’ category.
What does all of this tell us? Let’s dismiss the suggestion that there is anything ‘genetic’ which makes a national population more likely to commit a crime and conclude that it is a function of a combination of social circumstances and national policy. The first thing to say is that from drug deaths to social care indicators, Scotland has markers of ‘failures of despair’ almost everywhere.
It does not appear to be just public policy which is causing this problem but something to do with the condition of our society, as we can see from similar statistics from other parts of the UK. And yet we’re still much worse than some parts of the UK and consistently worse than Norther Ireland.
That tallies with long-term health statistics, another indicator of something not being right in the fabric of a society. But it does not let public policy off the hook, not by a long way. Northern Ireland has been through a peace process and has very significantly reduced its prison population.
Equally, Scotland has chosen explicitly to tackle rates of incarceration of women and in that has had success (though while Scotland ranks well in the proportion of prisoners who are women, that is from a particularly high prison population so does not mean we aren’t jailing women at comparable rates).
But over a balanced assessment of performance, Scotland has a dreadful record. We seem to create the conditions for crime and then take a particularly punitive approach with high rates of remand, short sentences and poor rehabilitation.
This was all recognised in the Scottish Prisons Commission report in 2008 (the McLeish Report), but though the recommendations were mostly accepted and some reforms put in place the political will to really fix Scotland’s prison record does not appear strong.