Criminals including violent thugs are to be freed early because jails are at bursting point.
Hundreds of inmates serving up to four years will have 18 days cut from their sentences under emergency measures announced by Justice Secretary Alex Chalk last night.
The first are expected to be free by the weekend under a space- saving scheme that could see thousands more win early release. Sex offenders and terrorists will be excluded but thugs serving time for wounding and assault could profit.
‘This power will only be used for a limited period and only in targeted areas,’ Mr Chalk told the Commons last night.
He said it would ‘relieve immediate pressure’ after the prison population hit a record 88,225 on Friday, leaving only 550 spare places in England and Wales.
Mr Chalk also said judges and magistrates would be asked to avoid imposing short jail terms.
Hundreds of inmates serving up to four years will have 18 days cut from their sentences under emergency measures announced by Justice Secretary Alex Chalk (pictured) last night
Mr Chalk said it would ‘relieve immediate pressure’ after the prison population hit a record 88,225 on Friday, leaving only 550 spare places in England and Wales. Pictured: Pentonville Prison
The Ministry of Justice will table legislation including a ‘presumption against prison sentences of less than 12 months’ – with lower-level offenders handed community sentences instead.
It means thieves could escape jail despite Rishi Sunak last month vowing to crack down on an ‘unacceptable’ rise in shoplifting.
Mr Chalk also confirmed that £400million will be spent on extra prison places, chiefly ‘pop-up’ cells installed in existing jails. There will also be a £30million fund to identify and purchase land for new jails, with a scoping exercise to be completed by the end of the year.
The number of GPS electronic tags for offenders will be doubled.
Mr Chalk’s announcement came after judges were told to delay the sentencing of all convicted offenders who had been on bail, which could include rapists, burglars and other serious criminals, because the jails are full.
The halt on sentencings is expected to last for ‘a couple of weeks’ until the emergency measures create headroom in the system.
The End of Custody Supervised Licence scheme is almost identical to one introduced by former Labour justice secretary Jack Straw in 2007. That saw 80,000 criminals freed early before it was scrapped in the run-up to the 2010 election.
At least three murders were committed by freed prisoners during the 18 days during which they should have been behind bars, according to data gathered at the time by the Conservatives, who were then in opposition.
The latest version will be ‘geographically targeted’ to free up cells in parts of the country where jails are most overcrowded.
Prisoners released early may have to wear a tag or observe a curfew under the scheme. Last Friday’s jail population – up more than 200 in a week – beat the previous peak of 88,179 set in late 2011, and is the highest total since modern-day records began in 1900. MoJ data showed there were just 557 available places in the crisis-hit jails.
By comparison, the number in jail was 44,000 when then-Conservative home secretary Michael Howard delivered his famous ‘prison works’ speech – championing custodial sentences – in October 1993.
A key factor in the prison population’s increase over recent years has been a sharp rise in the number of foreign national offenders serving time in Britain.
Latest data shows 10,321 were jailed in England and Wales at the end of June – up 7 per cent year on year. In 1993 the figure was about 3,400.
Another measure introduced by Mr Chalk will see foreign criminals eligible for removal to their home countries 18 months before the end of their sentence, rather than the current 12 months.
The Justice Secretary told MPs it would ‘get them out of the country early and no longer costing the taxpayer a fortune’.
Mr Chalk (pictured) also confirmed that £400million will be spent on extra prison places, chiefly ‘pop-up’ cells installed in existing jails
Mr Chalk’s announcement came after judges were told to delay the sentencing of all convicted offenders who had been on bail, which could include rapists, burglars and other serious criminals. Pictured: The Ministry of Justice in Westminster, London
He also confirmed plans to change the law so rapists must remain behind bars for the whole sentence handed down by a court, with no parole. Mr Chalk announced at the Tory party conference earlier this month that he had launched discussions to hire prison space in other countries for the first time – but the move will require a change in the law.
Legal changes required by yesterday’s package could be tacked on to the Victims and Prisoners Bill, which is currently going through parliament, meaning the measures could be in force within months.
Labour’s justice spokesman Shabana Mahmood said: ‘Our prisons are completely full – we’ve been sounding the alarm for many years now as overcrowding sky-rocketed. As of today the public will undoubtedly be less safe.’
Richard Miller of the Law Society, a solicitors’ professional body, said: ‘The Government has taken a pragmatic response to the prison crisis which is a complex issue.
‘There are advantages and disadvantages in the measures proposed by the Justice Secretary, and difficult balances to be struck.’
Pia Sinha, chief executive of the Prison Reform Trust, welcomed Mr Chalk’s plan to legislate against short jail terms.
‘It has long been recognised that short sentences do more harm than good and that community orders are more effective at reducing reoffending,’ she said.
‘In introducing these measures, it will be vital to ensure probation has additional resource to deal with the immediate pressures of supervising a greater number of people in the community.’
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