Prisoners on remand pleading guilty to avoid Covid custody
Prisoners on remand are pleading guilty in order to avoid spending up to two years in custody, The Times reports.
A backlog of tens of thousands of cases has accumulated since the first lockdown began last March. This has led to a significant increase in the remand population.
Data from the Scottish Prison Service show that in 2019-20 there was an average of 1,383 people held without trial on any given day, an increase on 1,251 the previous year. The figure stood at 1,734 at the end of last month.
Ian Moir, co-convenor of the Law Society of Scotland’s Criminal Legal Aid Committee, said the situation was creating a perverse incentive to plead guilty.
“When you’re getting to the stage where you might spend 12 or 18 months on remand there’s a danger that people will just plead if they think that means they will spend less time in jail,” he said.
“If it’s at the lower end and you might be facing 18 months discounted to 12 for an early plea, of which you would serve six, why would you want to lie on remand for 18 months? We’re getting to the stage where people are on remand for many, many months longer than previously.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service said cases in the High Court are taking an average of 12 months from preliminary hearing to trial and that other measures are being implemented to clear the backlog.
“This will progressively reduce the backlog each year and our modelling predicts that the backlog will be cleared by 2025,” Mr Moir added.
Cases with multiple accused, however, remain a problem as long as social distancing rules are in place.
Tony Lenehan, president of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, said work was being done to permit six-defendant cases to go ahead, but that any more would be difficult.
“There are some big nine-accused cases floating about,” he said. “At the moment there’s nowhere in the court estate to deal with socially distanced big multiple cases. If you’ve got nine accused in the dock, plus security, and everyone is two metres apart you would need a tennis court.”