The chairman of Scotland's parole board has voiced concerns about the automatic prisoner release system.
Concerns have been raised about Scotland's early release system
Since 1993, prisoners sentenced to four years or more are automatically released on licence when they have served two thirds of their sentence.
New figures show the number of non-life inmates freed under the system who are sent back to jail remains higher than at the start of the decade.
Professor James J McManus said the news was "clearly a matter of some concern".
Breach of licence
The parole board's 2003 annual report revealed the number of life prisoners released on licence last year rose to a high of 55 - compared to the previous year's figure of 53 and 39 in 2001.
A total of 28 lifers were recalled for breach of licence - compared to 12 in 2002, and five in 2001.
The number of non-life (determinate) prisoners serving four years or more automatically freed on licence two-thirds of the way through their sentence was 91 - compared to 63 prisoners in 2001 and 92 in 2002.
Of those granted parole halfway through their sentence, 24 were returned to custody for breaching the conditions of their early release - the same figure as in 2002 but up on previous years - 11 in 2001 and 12 in 2000 and 1999.
This is clearly a matter of some concern that needs to be addressed
Professor James J McManus
Parole Board chairman
Prof McManus attributed the increases to improved monitoring and reporting of released prisoners in the community.
He said: "The board's ultimate concern is public safety and it is of concern that the number of determinate prisoners who had been released on either parole or non-parole licence to serve the remainder of their sentence in the community, and who were subsequently recalled to custody, has increased.
"It is perhaps significant the greatest increase in recall cases occurs amongst those who have passed beyond the two thirds stage of their sentence and who would automatically have been released at that point.
"This is clearly a matter of some concern that needs to be addressed and the board is, therefore, pleased to note the issue of automatic early release is a matter which will be considered by the Sentencing Commission for Scotland."
It is believed the commission's upcoming review will focus on existing bail and remand issues and sentencing consistency as well as the automatic early release of short-term prisoners rather than those serving more than four years.
Released on parole
The report also revealed 706 cases were considered by the parole board in 2003 - up from 697 in 2002.
But there was a decrease in the number of prisoners released on parole - 345 compared to 417 in 2002.
The board was transformed in 2003 from a quango into a quasi-judicial organisation and given full responsibility for its own procedures and decisions.
It no longer advises the Scottish Executive on the release of certain prisoners and directs the releases of lifers and other inmates.
Prof McManus welcomed this change and said: "The ending of political involvement in the release decision-making process anticipated rulings by the European Court of Human Rights.
"Ministers retain the legal right to establish guidelines for the operation of the board and, of course, continue to be responsible for appointments to the board.
Annabel Goldie said she shared Prof McManus' concerns
"They have, however, given up all involvement in the individual decisions of the board."
The Conservatives seized on Prof McManus' comments.
Justice spokeswoman Annabel Goldie said: "Prof James McManus is absolutely right to point out the worrying rise in the number of long-term prisoners recalled from parole or automatic early release.
"It's bad enough it has resulted in so many life prisoners being released and subsequently recalled, but it is scandalous this government happily lets every other prisoner out of jail early, with no questions asked, after they have only served a fraction of their sentence."
Her Scottish National Party counterpart, Nicola Sturgeon, added: "Fifty-five lifers were released last year but what is even more worrying is that 28 had to be recalled.
"And, of those released a full fifth had served less than 10 years. That's not what I call a life sentence.
"Fine defaulters, who pose no threat to society are being locked up, yet lifers are being released. Something is very wrong with our justice system."
An executive spokesman said: "Automatic early release of prisoners is an issue of public concern - one this executive has been sensitive to and one that we have already acted to address.
"Not through a knee-jerk reaction or the expedient policy decisions of the past, but through establishing an expert Sentencing Commission and setting it
very clear priorities including proposals on early release."