Offenders who have been ordered to carry out unpaid work in the community could have the number of hours they are required to do cut as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf is considering the move after Social Work Scotland (SWS) warned there is a “major risk” the system could be “overwhelmed”.
It said it will “not be possible” for the 700,000 hours of unpaid work that is outstanding to be completed within the next 12 months.
“There is a major risk that Justice Social Work (JSW) will be overwhelmed, with serious consequences for the wider justice system,” it stated.
As many as 450,000 of the 700,000 outstanding hours could go uncompleted, SWS estimates.
With the Scottish Government having already released some prisoners early as a result of the pandemic, Mr Yousaf told MSPs on Holyrood’s Justice Committee he is considering if the number of hours criminals have been ordered to do will need to reduced on a “proportionate and limited basis”.
He explained it may be necessary to “reduce the volume of outstanding unpaid work hours in order to ensure that the justice system can continue to operate efficiently and effectively”.
But he stressed: “Should this be necessary, a careful balance will need to be struck so that victims of crime, the wider public and the judiciary continue to be confident that community orders are an effective way for individuals to payback to their communities, while taking into account the challenges faced by JSW and the wider justice system.”
If unpaid work hours are cut, regulations will need to be laid in the Scottish Parliament after recess, Mr Yousaf said.
SWS had written to the Justice Secretary to raise concerns about the impact of the pandemic on unpaid work – a key part of many community payback orders (CPOs).
It “concluded that to ensure the safety of staff and individuals subject to orders, and to maintain the viability of the community justice system, legislative action is necessary to reduce the backlog of unpaid work hours”.
SWS said the need for physical distancing will reduce the capacity for unpaid work “for the foreseeable future”.
It added “the majority of areas will be unable to deliver the accumulated backlog of unpaid work hours, let alone successfully manage the imposition of new orders”.
James Maybee, of SWS, said there is “an urgent need to proactively address the pressures faced by local authority justice social work services in managing the unpaid work or other activity requirements”.
He added: “We believe action must be quickly taken to reduce the backlog in unpaid work hours, in order to safeguard the health of individuals and the community justice system itself.
“We believe there is a clear parallel here with the emergency early release of prisoners, where swift action was taken to ensure the Scottish Prison Service had the ability to sustain a viable service during Covid-19 and to protect frontline staff and prisoners.”
Community Justice Scotland backed the call for hours to be reduced in what chairman Lindsay Montgomery described as “wholly exceptional circumstances”.
He said as an “initial measure” the Scottish Government should use the powers in emergency coronavirus legislation to “vary existing CPOs including unpaid work or other activity”.
Mr Montgomery said “this step would bring significant alleviation of the building pressure”.
Meanwhile Kelly Parry, the community wellbeing spokeswoman for the local government body Cosla, said proposals to reduce the number of unpaid work hours should be “given serious consideration by the Scottish Government”.