Can England learn from Scotland’s prisoner release practices?

© Jason Rosenberg

The laws and services surrounding the release of dangerous prisoners have come under scrutiny as more details continue to emerge in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on London Bridge.

One of the victims was Jack Merritt, a 25-year-old man who had dedicated his career to delivering programmes for prisoners to change their offending behaviour.  In an open letter to the Guardian Newspaper, Jack’s father David gave an interview in response to the political wrangling that occurred after the attack.

David says: “Jack devoted his energy to the purpose of Learning Together: a pioneering programme to bring students from university and prisons together to share their unique perspectives on justice.”

The reaction in the press was dominated by debate over whether the system in England and Wales for automatic conditional release of prisoners led to Usman Khan’s ability to go on to murder the two victims of the attack.

Despite being assessed as being at high risk of re-offending and causing harm, Khan qualified for automatic release on licence without a Parole Hearing.

During ITV’s political leaders’ debate, Nicola Sturgeon pointed out that Scotland has an entirely different system for long-term prisoners (LTPs), whereby none are released without a Parole Board hearing and a risk management plan in place.

In Scotland, all offenders who receive a prison sentence of 4 or more years automatically enter the ‘Throughcare System’, which begins on their reception into custody.

Prisoners are allocated a community-based social worker at the point of sentence in order to build a comprehensive, on-going risk assessment for the duration of the sentence, and to ensure release plans are in place at the earliest opportunity.

Scotland’s model of practice with LTPs is based on a comprehensive evidence base, which accredits intensive support and monitoring post-release with significantly lower rates of re-offending.

The underlying principles have a dual purpose – the more intensive contact with professionals is through LTPs sentence, the more accurate the risk assessment given to the Parole Board will be when they consider the individual’s suitability for liberation on licence.

Scotland does not allow the liberation of LTPs without a set of strict criteria for risk assessment, or without an agreed risk management plan for liberation.  The Parole Board hold responsibility for assessing whether LTPs are suitable for release on licence, and decide what conditions apply to the individual licencee.

Khan, in line with the criminal code in England and Wales, had reached the half-way point of the custody part of his extended sentence and was released as a result.

A source who has worked in prison-based group work programmes in both English and Scottish prisons explains some differences between the two services. He said that he believes prisons in England are more overcrowded, and privatised.

While services in the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) are carried out in statutory teams, offence-focused programmes available in England are dependant on the individual prison.

He also reported that SPS are more able to manage their prison populations, because they are a smaller country.  This means they are able to participate in activities and programmes associated with reducing the risk of re-offending.

There are many aspects to this case that require attention and review.

The spirit of post-release monitoring and support is to integrate the individual back into society, and for professionals to maintain a continuing risk assessment for dangerousness and public safety over time.

Thorough exploration of Khan’s attack will likely afford the future elected government with information that could be useful for evolving the services associated with post-release support and monitoring for former prisoners in England and Wales.

David Merritt commented that he hopes that future changes do not include a “return to draconian practices in criminal justice”.