Tackling Covid-19, delivering justice
Scotland’s justice system is facing major challenges because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some issues, like overcrowding in prisons and long waits for cases to go to court, have been exacerbated significantly by the spread of Covid-19 and unprecedented lockdown measures. As the virus has spread to all corners of the country, social distancing has presented as a big challenge within prisons and courts, as well as wider communities. The combination of over-populated prisons and increasing levels of prison staff absences has led to the need for some inmates on short term or soon to be ending sentences to be released early.
The rules for this kind of early release can differ depending on the person’s circumstances. In normal practice, short-term prisoners are automatically released after serving half of their custodial sentence. In some cases, they could be released earlier into home detention with an electronic tag and conditions to their sentence being served outwith a prison environment. The Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 introduced new provisions allowing for additional powers to release prisoners before the end of their imprisonment to ease overcrowding. Up to 450 could be freed early to increase the number of single cells available to prisoners who are required to self-isolate or practice social distancing. Although this release of prisoners is likely to have a significant impact on prisoner numbers in the short-term, it will quickly start to decline as the scheme only applies to those who would have been released by early August.
Worryingly now, it is still not clear what steps are being taken by the Scottish Government to make sure prisoners will have the stability and security to get their lives back on track when they are released. It is essential that a proper transition plan is in place for each prisoner released to ensure they have secure accommodation and proper back up from support services. According to research, people leaving prison are at high risk of homelessness for several reasons. They may have been homeless before entering prison or may have lost their housing because while serving their sentence. Some may have been dependent on drugs or alcohol or may not have a support network of family and friends to support them upon their release. Critically, it is not enough just to make sure newly released prisoners have a roof over their head – they must also be tested to make sure they are not carrying the Covid-19 virus with them as they return to their communities.
At present, more than 560 prison staff are absent from the service. It is vital that consistent, routine testing for covid-19 is available to them.
This pandemic will also be having a profound effect on prisoners themselves. Part of Scotland’s lockdown response has involved suspending family visits with prisoners and restricting certain activities within prisons that may put inmates or staff at risk of contracting covid-19. This will be creating its own problems with the negative knock on effect on their physical and mental health and maintaining family ties throughout this crisis.
While it is positive to note that prison populations have reduced during this crisis, it is important to keep in mind that this change did not simply occur due to emergency powers allowing early release. For one, lockdown measures across the country have led to a decrease in certain crimes as people are being asked to stay home and limit even their food shopping trips to help curb the spread of Covid-19. Social distancing measures also mean the courts system has essentially ground to a halt. The debate around emergency coronavirus legislation involved various suggestions for helping to keep cases from being shelved. Those included asking accused and accusers to give evidence via video link, rather than in person. Thankfully, the idea of judge only trials was ditched. Scottish Labour will continue to oppose any proposals that abandon jury trials in serious cases. The Scottish Government needs now to come up with a solution that tackles the backlog of legal cases but retains the principle of jury trials. Once it is safe for them to do so, courts will return – but it is possible that some cases will face lengthy delays. When they are finally heard, it could in turn lead to a surge in the number of people entering prisons. As we look towards when the courts system may be able to return fully, the government must also be able to explain how.
Lockdown measures have also been particularly difficult for far too many who have now been forced to stay in their homes with an abuser for the duration of the restrictions. For some, this ‘new normal’ has put them in a position of far greater risk. In other cases, a person may be suffering from domestic abuse or violence for the first time while in this Covid-19 lockdown. The Chief Executive of Scottish Women’s Aid, Marsha Scott, has warned that more opportunities for abusers to control or coerce a partner means behaviour such as preventing a person from talking to others, dictating when they can eat, sleep or when they can go out is ‘more frightening in the context of the pandemic.’ As the lockdown continues, we must ensure that all vital domestic abuse support services remain open, and that any additional resources that are necessary are provided. It is more important than ever that services and places of refuge are easily accessible, so that all victims of abuse – whether it is at the hands of a partner, parent or anyone in their household – know they have a route out of abusive settings.
The speed of the spread of Covid-19 was unexpected and unprecedented, and Scotland was not prepared to meet its challenges when the seriousness of it hit. We must not be taken by surprise by the challenges of rebuilding our country in a post-coronavirus world. While lockdown restrictions are eased in parts of the UK, the Scottish Government must make sure that every precaution is taken to protect our communities, our frontline workers and our country’s morals and values.
If you are experiencing abuse and are looking for support, please contact an organisation that can help you:
• Scotland’s 24hr Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline is available on 0800 027 1234
• Rape Crisis Scotland is available on 08088 01 03 02 or text 07537 410027
• National LGBT Domestic Abuse Helpline is available on 0300 999 5428 or 0800 999 5428
• AMIS (Abused Men in Scotland) is available on 0808 800 0024