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Emergency actions to tackle prison crisis
Justice Secretary announces early release and restrictions on short sentences to tackle prisons crisis

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Overcrowding crisis

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk was forced to make an emergency announcement today (16 October 2023) introducing new measures to tackle the ever-growing prison population. At tea time this afternoon, Mr Chalk addressed the House of Commons and set out two main initiatives to try to tackle the crisis.

These focused on:

  • Releasing some “lower level offenders” on licence 18 days before their automatic release date.
  • Legislating for “a presumption that custodial sentences of less than twelve months in prison will be suspended”.
  • Extending the Early Removal Scheme, so that the government has the power to remove foreign criminals up to eighteen months before they are due to be released, up from the current twelve months.

The context

The prison population declined noticeably throughout the pandemic, primarily because the different restrictions meant that the courts were not sitting. The resultant backlogs have still not been addressed with the latest figures (covering the year up to 30 June) showing the number of outstanding cases in our Crown Courts reaching his highest ever figure of 64,709.

By April 2021, the prison population had fallen by almost 6,000 from the previous year – on 23 April it stood at 77,738 compared to 83,654 on 28 February 2020. The number of people inside were slow to rise again and were still on 81,866 on 21 October last year. However, over the last year, the population has surged relentlessly hitting 88,225 last Friday (13 October 2023).

It is not lost on penal reformers, that much of the long-term increase is attributable to the Government’s own policies of sending people to prison for longer periods of time, in addition to imposing new restrictions on release under parole. The average custodial sentence length was 24.3 months last year compared to 17 months a decade earlier. Mr Chalk glossed over this point, instead pinning the blame for over-crowing on the jump in remands, in part caused by the pandemic. It is true that the remand population has increased significantly from 9,000 in 2019 to more than 15,000 currently.

My interactive chart below shows the fluctuations in the prison population since just before the pandemic.

Further information

The details of these actions are not clear at this point although the Justice Secretary did add that a number of other actions were being considered including:
  • Extending the discount off a custodial sentence for pleading guilty early in proceedings – Mr Chalk hopes that this will have a particular impact on the remand population.
  • Reviewing the use of prison recall, especially when someone has not committed a new offence.
  • Looking at options to reduce the current 10 year licence period for people serving IPP sentences. There remain around 3,000 IPP prisoners in custody despite their original tariff expiring years ago, many of whom have been recalled to prison on several occasions.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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2 responses

  1. My Husband is a low level offender inside for a driving offence that could of been suspended, he could be put on an early release scheme and be on home detention curphew for the majority of his sentence or at least allow him have Cat D sooner so he can start going back to work and providing for him family instead of me struggling nearly losing our home and living with health problems both mentally and physically. His offence is not for something that warrants being behind bars when it was a car accident, and something that will not happen again as he will not be driving. This kind of punishment is not the correct way when the prisons are that full he could of been given a suspended sentence, like some people are now going to get for crimes more serious than my husbands

    My husband is complying with everything needed inside, but he cannot even get a job or do any qualifications either to being dyslexic and not enough support is available due to short staff yet he has a job here to come home to and get back to life.

    He is not a reoffender, and certainly would not be recalled, yet he is locked up behind bars, when he has a mental health condition and being stuck in his cell day in day out does not help him one bit.

    My husbands case is one that should be looked into when he is taking up space that could be used for a severe crime ie rape but yet these criminals are aloud to walk the streets to commit further crimes while they await sentencing due to the prisons being too full.

    My husband would be happy to have tag for 12 months if need be as he is eligible for it in June anyway, so why not allow him it sooner, or send him to Cat D sooner when that would be after Christmas and free up a space for a real criminal

    Your help would be much appreciated

    1. Hi Billi-Jo
      Thanks for getting in touch. I was very sorry to hear about your situation. I’m afraid I just don’t have the expertise to help you out. The best suggestion I can make is that you ask advice from the Prisoners Advice Service which offers free legal advice to prisoners:
      Good luck

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