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Why has our prison population doubled since 1993?

Intriguing and concerning new report from the MoJ traces the massive growth in our use of incarceration at the same time as the crime rate was falling.

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More people sent to prison for longer

  1: More people are being sentenced to immediate custody 

  2: People are being sentenced to longer periods of imprisonment (average sentence length has grown from 16 months in 1993 to 18.8 months in 2015)

That’s the main two reasons for the doubling of our prison population according to a recent (29 July 2016) report from the MoJ on the Story of the prison population since 1993

The prison population has been growing steadily since the war, with the average annual growth rate increasing from 2.5% between 1945 and 1993 to 3.4% between 1993 and 2012.

prison population since war

The prison population has increased by around 40,000 since 1993 from 44,246 to 85,134 (30 June 2016).

Almost all of this increase can be accounted for by the rise in the number of prisoners sentenced to immediate custody; there were around 40,000 more prisoners serving immediate custodial sentences in 2016, compared to 1993.

There has also been a drop in the remand population of around 1,000, but this has been offset by a similar rise in the number of Non-Criminals — those committing civil (non-criminal) offences and immigration detainees.

Breakdown of long sentences

The report breaks down this large increase in the numbers subject to immediate custodial sentences. As the graphic below shows, 46% of this growth is attributable to a surge in longer  (>4 years) sentences, 20% to indeterminate sentences (IPP and life) and 16% to recalls.


This change is so profound that as of June 2016, only 34% prisoners at any time are serving sentences of less than four years.

A key reason for this change is that the offence make-up of the prison population is changing towards offences that carry longer sentences such as Violence against the Person (VATP), Sex and Drug Offences.

The proportion of sentenced prisoners convicted for VATP, Sexual Offences and Drug Offences has grown from 2 in every 5 prisoners in 1993 to 3 in 5 by 2016.


The growth of recalls

In June 1995, only around 150 in the prison population were recalled offenders. This had increased to 1,100 over the following six years (1,113 as at June 2001). Since then, the numbers of ‘recalls’ in the prison population has continued to increase; reaching 6,600 as at June 2016 (albeit with a dip between 2009 and 2014).

The main cause of this increase in recalls were the four different Acts of Parliament shown on the graphic which have increased the legal powers for recall.


Given the large fall in recorded crime over this period, these are particularly worrying figures although the MoJ paper does note that the prison population has been stable for the last three years and speculates that perhaps this unprecedented period of growth in the use of incarceration is coming to an end.

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