WE ARE A MAGAZINE ABOUT LAW AND JUSTICE | AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO
April 20 2024
WE ARE A MAGAZINE ABOUT LAW AND JUSTICE | AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO
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Justice Secretary announces new early release prison plan

Justice Secretary announces new early release prison plan

A view of D wing at HMP Wandsworth Prison. Pic: Andy Aitchison

Justice Secretary, Alex Chalk, has announced a new prison plan, allowing for the early release of offenders in a bid to counter prison overcrowding and pressure.

In England and Wales, male prisons are 99.7% full, whilst women’s prisons are 96.9% full, with 70 out of 121 total jails holding more than capacity. Current projections show there will soon be more imprisoned people than prison places at the current rate. The trend of rapid prison growth increase has been described as ‘utterly untenable’ and a ‘crisis situation’, This growth rose exponentially during the COVID pandemic, and is expected to increase by 30% by 2028. This has sparked calls for action and promoted Chalk’s announcement of emergency measures.

In an October statement, Chalk announced that the government would use powers to release prisoners earlier, up to 35 days before the sentence is due to be completed, to alleviate the pressure on overcrowded prisons. He also accepted that prisons could choose to extend this to 60 days and more.

Monday night’s statement added that the new proposal only applies to low level offenders as a temporary scheme. Prisoners would still be subject to conditions upon early release. Conditions would include electronic tagging, monitoring and an extension of existing custody measures to 35-60 days.

Chalk also laid out plans to reduce the amount of foreign prisoners. Currently there are over 10,000 in England and Wales, but by limiting visas to nations where there’s deadlock on deportation, Chalk hopes to double the number of foreign prisoners returned to their countries of origin compared to last year.

Despite Chalk’s assurance that public protection is at the heart of the early release plans to combat prison overcrowding, there have been criticisms of the plans.

The Labour shadow justice secretary, Shabana Mahmood took issue with the extending the plans to 60 days. She stated this was announced ‘under the cover of darkness’ to minimise outcry. Mahmood also claimed the release of violent offenders serving under four years, thieves, shoplifters, abusers and burglars is publicly alarming, and should be announced upfront. ‘The justice secretary has a duty to be candid with the public’, Mahmood said.

Andrea Coomber KC, Chief Executive of The Howard League for Penal Reform, has responded to the announcement stating that: ‘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 Howard League had previously written to Alex Chalk back in June 2023 to ask for measures to be taken to reduce overcrowding, which included the introduction of an early release scheme.  In this latest response, Andrea Coomber KC explains that, whilst the Howard League welcomes the announcement that action is being taken, there is a need for a ‘grown-up debate in this country on how to achieve a fundamental shift in the use of custody.’