Convicted criminals could avoid jail because prisons are 'full'

By John Mercury October 12, 2023

Convicted criminals could avoid jail from next week because prisons are full, according to reports.

The Times reported that Lord Edis, the senior presiding judge for England and Wales, has said that from next week the sentencing of criminals who are on bail should be delayed.

Some prisoners may also be released early under proposals from the government designed to contain the expanding prison population.

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The Times reported that one judge was concerned convicted rapists might be left on bail rather than being jailed.

But a Ministry of Justice (MOJ) spokesperson said the government was “categorical that the most serious offenders should be sent to prison and that anyone deemed a risk to public safety is remanded in custody while awaiting trial”.

“Reports to the contrary are false,” they added.

The development comes after stark warnings were issued over the summer about the lack of capacity in the prison system, which Justice Secretary Alex Chalk admitted was under “intense pressure”.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay told Sky News he could not “comment on leaks”, but added that Mr Chalk “will make a statement to parliament on Monday”.

Parliament is on recess until Monday for the party conference season.

Mr Barclay said that prisons were “under huge pressure” – but said the UK was currently embarking on “the fastest expansion of the prison estate for 100 years”.

According to the government’s own projections, the prison population is set to grow to 89,100 by November, but there are only 88,667 operational prison places left – creating a shortage of 433 places.

The shadow justice secretary, Shabana Mahmood, said it was an “absolutely damning indictment of the state of our prisons that this Tory government is unable to either get criminals locked up or keep them there”.

“The prison estate is a mess,” she said.

“Prisons are overcrowded and have become breeding grounds for more crime. The government has been warned time and again about the challenges with prison population and conditions.”

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Asked about the reports by Sophy Ridge on Sky News’ Politics Hub programme, Security Minister Tom Tugendhat said he could not comment directly but that a “wave of prosecutions” were coming through due to a COVID backlog and the recent barristers’ strike.

Pressed on whether the government had become soft on crime, Mr Tugendhat said: “That’s absolutely not true.

“We are absolutely clear that those who commit violent acts, sexual acts against people in the United Kingdom will go to prison and will go to prison for long periods of time to protect the British people.

“That’s why we’re increasing the number of prison places. And that’s why we’re absolutely adamant that those who are convicted of these horrendous crimes will go to prison. “

During a recent appearance in front of parliament’s justice committee, Mr Chalk spoke of how the government had had to rely on rapid deployment cells to manage the expanding population.

But he rejected suggestions from the committee chair, Sir Bob Neill, that the country could have run out of prison spaces by the autumn, saying: “There will always be enough prison places to give effect to the order of the court and ensure that the guilty are convicted, the innocent walk free and the public are protected.”

During his speech to the Tory Party conference, Mr Chalk said the government was considering renting prison cells overseas to tackle overcrowding.

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A MOJ spokesperson said: “We are categorical that the most serious offenders should be sent to prison and that anyone deemed a risk to public safety is remanded in custody while awaiting trial. Reports to the contrary are false.

“This government has done more than ever before to protect the public and keep sex offenders locked up for longer, ending automatic halfway release for rapists and serious violent offenders and sending rapists to prison for three years longer than in 2010.

“Following the pandemic and barristers’ strike, the criminal justice system has seen a significant spike in the prison population, with 6,000 more prisoners on remand than before the pandemic.

“While we are carrying out the biggest prison-building programme since the Victoria era, and have taken decisive action to expand capacity further by doubling up cells in the short-term, the prison estate remains under pressure.

“The Lord Chancellor will be meeting criminal justice partners later today and setting out a programme of reform in the coming days to ensure that we can continue to strengthen public protection by locking up the most dangerous criminals.”

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