EMERGENCY measures have been announced in Scotland to deal with “critical risk” prison overcrowding.

Justice Secretary Angela Constance told MSPs in Holyrood on Thursday that from May 26, emergency early release powers will be used – meaning prisoners serving sentences under four years could be released.

She added, however, that certain offenders including those convicted of sexual and domestic abuse will not be considered.

It comes after the UK Government also triggered emergency measures to release some criminals from prisons early – with recent reports suggesting that some prisoners may be released up to 70 days early, up from 18 days last year.

Constance didn’t update on precise details yet but said that Scotland’s prison population has now rocketed to over 8300 people – reportedly “one of the highest ever recorded in Scotland”.

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“There is now a critical risk to the continued safe and effective operation of the estate, with multiple prisons essentially full,” she added.

“The Scottish Prison Service’s ability to deliver rehabilitative regimes has been severely curtailed; visits to prisoners are becoming difficult to maintain; and there are increasing challenges to the effective delivery of NHS services.”

Constance said MSPs have “no choice but to act if we are to avoid an unprecedented crisis developing”, suggesting three measures.

The first is the early release of some prisoners, with Scottish Parliament approval, under the Bail and Release from Custody (Scotland) Act.

The legislation comes into force on May 26 and if the legal test for emergency release is satisfied, the Justice Secretary will seek approval from MSPs within the following two weeks.

The National: Angela Constance

“My hope was that this would never need to be used,” she said. “However as things stand today, my view is that we have reached the threshold for taking emergency action.

“My intention is that those released would be serving sentences of under four years.

“Public safety will always be my priority, and I can reassure Parliament that there are protections in place so that no-one serving a sentence for sexual offences or domestic abuse will be released, with a governor veto also available.”

The Government will engage with victims organisations and councils in preparation for the release of any prisoners, she added.

She also said ministers will look at how the release of long-term prisoners is managed, saying she will bring a bill forward in the autumn, as well as expanding the criteria for home detention.