Scottish prison population statistics 2020-21

An official statistical release for Scotland 23rd June 2022.

Covid-related public health measures in the justice system had rapid and substantial impacts on the prison population in 2020-21, according to official statistics released today by the Chief Statistician.

The average monthly prison population fell rapidly during the first three months of the pandemic, from around 8,000 in March 2020 to just under 7,000 in June 2020. The population then increased and generally stabilized at from September 2020 to around 7,500.

Taken together, the demographic shocks resulted in an overall 10% reduction in the average daily prison population, from around 8,200 in 2019-20 to 7,337 in 2020-21. However, the latest figures primarily reflect the impact of the Covid pandemic on the justice system and should not be interpreted as an indication of longer term prison population trends.

As the recently released National Crime Proceedings in Scotland 2020-21 statistics have already shown, the reduction in court capacity during the pandemic has had significant impacts on the volume of court proceedings, with the mix of cases possibly being brought before the courts and the results of the associated convictions. The prison population figures released today reflect these and other impacts of Covid on the justice system.

Further reflecting the impacts of Covid on the justice system, arrivals to prison decreased by 28% in 2020-21 (from 14,340 in 2019-2020 to 10,260). Fewer people spent time in prison during 2020-21 than in 2019-20 (-3,071 to 14,239, a drop of around 18%). Although these reductions continue the trends observed from 2009-2010, they are the largest reductions recorded in a single year. There were even larger reductions in the number of people spending time in prison who were women (31% reduction to 867 people) or under the age of 18 (37% reduction to 74 people).

While the average daily prison population has declined overall in 2020-21, the untried population has increased by almost 18%, from around 1,178 per average day in 2019-20 to around 1,384 in 2020-21. Combined with the decrease in the populations of convicts and convicts awaiting trial, this has changed the balance between the legal statuses (accused and convicted) in the prison population. In 2020-21, 22% of the prison population was in pretrial detention on an average day – the highest proportion reported in an official statistical release to date.

Time spent on remand continued to increase between 2019-20 and 2020-21. For those who left remand, the median length remained about the same (22 days in both reference years). However, while in 2019-2020 90% of departures from pre-trial detention took place with 98 days, in 2020-21 this figure had increased to 109 days.

For those who transitioned from pretrial detention to the sentenced population, the median length of pretrial detention rose sharply, from 36 days to 55 days over the same period. In 2019-20, 90% of transitions occurred within 145 days, but in 2020-21 that figure had increased to 175 days.

The offense profile of the sentenced and remand populations changed in 2020-2021. The average daily sentenced population decreased by 15% overall, but the reductions were not equal across the different index offense groups. There were greater reductions in populations with offenses listed in Group 3 “Dishonesty”, Group 5 “Other Crimes”, and Group 6 “Miscellaneous Offenses” (35%, 23% and 21% respectively) than in populations with offenses listed in groups 1 and 2 (9% and 2.8% respectively), the most serious violent and sexual offenses. As a result, those who committed index offenses in groups 1 or 2 represented a larger share of the convicted population in 2020-21 than in 2019-20 – almost 60% compared to around 55%.

While the overall average daily remand population increased by 7% from 2019-20 to 2020-21, this increase was not evenly distributed across all index offense groups. There have been large increases in the accused populations of the Group 1 ‘Non-sexual violence offences’ index (+28% between 2019-20 and 2020-21) and the Group 2 ‘Sex offences’ index (+11 % over the same period). However, the populations charged with index offenses in cluster 3 “Dishonesty” and cluster 5 “Other crimes” decreased by 24% and 11% respectively between 2019-20 and 2020-21.


Read the full statistical publication.

Adherence to public health measures during the pandemic has influenced operations across the criminal justice system. The Lord Advocate issued revised guidelines on the use of police custody, and courts had to close for long periods or operate at reduced capacity. Prisons must ensure sufficient space for prisoners to comply with public health measures.

The impact of the justice system’s responses to public health measures in 2020-21 included: a decrease in the volume of custody cases reported to the Crown Office and the Procurator Fiscal Service, and an increase in the volume of recognizance reports; a reduced likelihood of an accused being dismissed; a reduced volume of cases concluded before the courts, with a subsequent reduction in the custodial sentences handed down and an increase in the backlog of trials; and agreement in the early stages of the pandemic response on the early release of eligible inmates serving short sentences. Combined, these changes impacted both inflows at custody and outings of keep.

See the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Data Report: Justice Analytical Services, Sheriff Courts – Pre-Trial Custody and Bail Outcomes: Occasional Paper and the SPS COVID-19 Information Centerfor more information and analysis on the impacts of Covid on justice.

Further information on the impacts of Covid on criminal proceedings and trends in the use of custodial sentences can be read in the national statistics publication Criminal Proceedings in Scotland, 2020-21.