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Howard League blog · 11 Mar 2024

It’s time for a grown-up debate about prison overcrowding

Today’s edition of The Times reports that the Secretary of State for Justice, Alex Chalk, has warned the Prime Minister that the prison system could run out of space this month.

For several years now, it has been obvious to any informed observers that the government was heading towards the precipice of a prison overcrowding crisis. The Ministry of Justice’s own prison population projections have been predicting that the number of people behind bars in England and Wales will very soon outstrip the supply of prison places, and this is despite a prison building programme costing billions of pounds.  

The latest projections, published only last month, have deepened the gravity of the situation. As of Friday, the prison population in England and Wales stands at 88,220, having been as low as 77,859 as recently as April 2021. Projections suggest the number of people in prison could rise to as high as 114,800 by March 2028 – an increase of 47% in only seven years. This is, as we said in our response, an “utterly untenable” state of affairs. 

Back in June of last year, we wrote to Alex Chalk and urged him to address the situation by introducing sensible measures to reduce the prison population. We suggested a range of possible short-term solutions, including introducing an early release scheme, expanding the use of Home Detention Curfew, and reducing the use of recall to prison. This was setting out some pragmatic first steps that could ease pressure on prisons, ahead of the more radical change required. 

The response we received later that month, from the-then prisons minister, Damian Hinds, was disappointing. There were “no plans to introduce any new early release schemes”. The “primary way” to address overcrowding was to “build new prisons”. 

Nine months later, however, action has been announced in all three areas. The Sentencing Bill currently before Parliament not only seeks to expand the use of Home Detention Curfew but proposes a presumption against the use of short prison sentences. In October, Alex Chalk announced that some people in prison would be eligible for release 18 days early – introducing a scheme very similar to that utilised by the Labour government when it was last in power. 

In the past week we have seen further movement on recall and early release. The use of fixed-term recalls for short-sentenced prisoners is being expanded and the early release scheme is now being extended in scope, so that some people in prison can be released 35 days early. Taken together, the Daily Telegraph reports some 44,000 people in prison could be affected by these new measures. 

We welcome the Damascene conversion to action on areas we advanced to the Ministry of Justice nine months ago. But clearly the government is running out of time. Today’s report in The Times suggests that Downing Street is reluctant to move to the next stage of the Sentencing Bill because of fears it would trigger a rebellion from the Conservative backbenches.  

The truth is that even the Sentencing Bill, if enacted, would only delay the inevitable reckoning this government, or the next, must have with the untenable rise in prison numbers. We need a grown-up debate in this country on how to achieve a fundamental shift in the use of custody and we need it more than ever. 

Andrea Coomber, KC (Hon.)


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