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Early Release - The way to solve prison overcrowding?

Overcrowding in prisons has become a major issue of concern recently. The prison population rose by 6,000 last year so that there were over 88,000 serving prisoners by the end of the year, a record high, leaving only around 500 places free.

Overcrowding is particularly concerning, seeing as poor prison conditions such as this often lead to unrest in prisons as was seen in the infamous Strangeways Riot. In order to try and relieve pressure from the system in October last year Justice Secretary Alex Chalk announced the end of custody supervised licence scheme. Under this emergency measure those serving up to four years had 18 days cut from their sentences. Originally planned to only be temporary and in certain areas where prison overcrowding was the biggest problem, this is now being further extended for an undefined period beyond the originally targeted 21 prisons. There have been some similar schemes introduced in the past but these have not been without problems, as some of those released early went on to commit crimes whilst on release. There are other problems with this system as it may put into question the safety of victims and put pressure on services which supports prisoners on release to gain accommodation and access support services.

This scheme is one of a raft of measures to try and address the problem of prison overcrowding. Foreign nationals serving sentences are to be returned to their home country to serve their sentence. Land is being sourced for new prisons and some short-term resolutions such as pop-up cells are being considered. The penal system has been underfunded for years and it is not in a vacuum, for example when Greater Manchester Police increased their charging rate and came out of special measures, this put pressure on the court system and accordingly the prison service.

A proposed new Sentencing Bill is also being used to tackle prison overcrowding. Under this the extension of the availability of the Home Detention Curfew system is being proposed. Originally only available to those serving sentences of up to four year this is being widened to certain prisoners serving sentences of four years or more. This would allow them to be released on an electronically monitored curfew, up to 180 days prior to their release date. These measures have been welcomed by Prison Reform Trust so that more prisoners can access rehabilitation whilst under curfew and act as a bridge from prison to release. The new Sentencing Bill is also to introduce a presumption that custodial sentences of 12 months or less should be suspended. This would mean that short sentences are a thing of the past, unless there are particular concerns that not sending someone to custody could put another at risk. Short sentences can be particularly problematic as gives little opportunity for any rehabilitative activity to take place.

Questions to consider

  • What is the end of custody supervised licence scheme? What could be some of the problems with this?
  • According to the text what is being proposed by the new Sentencing Bill to address the problem of overcrowding in prison?
  • Why are short custodial sentences problematic?

Gemma Shepherd-Etchells

Gemma is an experienced Law teacher and examiner.

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