Long-term convicts could be released years earlier to relieve pressure on Scotland's prisons

Long-term prisoners could be released from jail for the final third of their sentence under new proposals being considered by the Scottish government.

The consultation forms part of a range of measures designed to combat Scotland's rising prison population, which has reached "critical" levels.

A programme of early release is currently under way for more than 500 inmates serving shorter sentences.

Views are now being sought on changing the point of release under licence conditions for prisoners serving a custodial sentence of four years or more.

The move would see inmates spend more time under community supervision as part of their jail sentence.

The Scottish government's consultation says the change would "provide a more managed return" to the community and be a "proportionate way" to reduce the pressure on the prison estate.

If implemented, the change would not apply to convicts serving an extended sentence for violent or sexual offences.

Unless previously recommended for parole at an earlier stage, most long-term prisoners are eligible to be released under licence six months from the end of their sentence.

'We are trying to find a better balance'

The consultation is proposing a return to policy from before February 2016.

Under the proposals, those released following two-thirds of their sentence would be subject to licence conditions, supervision, and ultimately recall to custody.

Justice Secretary Angela Constance said: "Supervision is a commonly used element of custodial sentences - as part of efforts to prepare individuals nearing their return to the community to settle and ultimately to not re-offend.

"Our proposals would bring forward the point at which long-term prisoners are released so individuals spend more time under licence conditions in the community before the end of their sentence.

"Individuals would continue to serve their sentence but do so in the community under strict supervision, which can improve reintegration back into society and reduce the risk of re-offending.

"We are considering these measures to find a better balance between the time spent in custody and time supervised in the community, particularly following the recent increase in the prison population when Scotland already has one of the highest in Western Europe."

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The prisoners would be subject to individualised risk assessment ahead of release, with licence conditions reflecting the conclusions of that assessment and being set on the recommendations of the Parole Board.

Victims would continue to have the right to receive certain information about a prisoner in their case, including their release dates, and to make representations under the Victim Notification Scheme.

'Release will be informed by robust assessments'

Ms Constance added: "Public safety will be paramount.

"Release under licence conditions means strict community supervision and specific support in place informed by robust individual risk assessments of prisoners.

"These measures would be introduced through legislation, requiring debate and the approval of parliament. I invite people to share their views."

The consultation will close on 19 August.

The Scottish Conservatives branded the move a "broken promise from the SNP to victims of crime".

A spokesperson for the party said: "Nicola Sturgeon promised to end automatic early release for all criminals, but never fulfilled that pledge.

"Now the SNP want to release dangerous criminals who have served just two-thirds of their sentence which, if enacted, would pose a serious risk to public safety.

"The fact that these plans are even being proposed is systematic of the SNP's failure to invest in our prison estate which is crumbling at the seams.

"The needs of criminals have yet again been put above the needs of victims in the SNP's justice system."