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IFG - The next government has just days to avoid a prisons emergency: here’s what it could do

The next government must immediately decide how to free up thousands of prisons places.

With England and Wales just days away from running out of prisons cells, a new Institute for Government report lays bare the extent of the prisons crisis facing the next government and sets out how it can avert a major emergency – and increased risk to the public.

Published today, The crisis in prisons: What is facing the next government, and how can it start to fix it? warns that with no time to enact longer-term measures – like revising sentencing policy, expanding prison capacity, or offering more options for community sentences – the next government must immediately decide how to free up thousands of prisons places.

The new IfG report blames successive justice secretaries and prime ministers for a failure to address the predictable consequences of the long-term trend for lengthier sentences. It warns that the next government has few available options that would have sufficient impact, can be implemented quickly and would pose low risk in terms of both public protection and miscarriages of justice.

But with the UK’s justice system in real danger of having no prison space available for criminals given custodial sentences the next government must choose from a number of options that free up prisons space and help avert a prisons emergency:

  • Lowering the point of automatic release for most offenders (not serious violent or sexual offenders) from 50% through their sentence to 40-45% - this option is likely to be necessary to deliver the sufficient space in the available time even if other options are also used.
  • Introducing a queuing system for immediate custodial sentences, so that lower-risk offenders do not go to prison straightaway but begin their sentence under house arrest until a prison space becomes available.  
  • Allowing sentences up to three years – up from two - to be suspended, meaning the offender does not have to go to prison as long as they do not commit any further offences and abide by any conditions attached.
  • Reducing or removing supervision post-release for offenders serving sentences under 12 months would substantially cut the number of recalls.

At the same time, the government should develop a long-term strategy to reduce pressure on prisons. The prison population stands at just over 87,000 - increasing 13% just in the last three years – and is predicted to hit 99,300 by the end of next year. With around 4,400 planned new spaces, this is nowhere near the capacity to house the extra 12,000 prisoners. The emergency measures set out in this paper will only buy so much time.

Cassia Rowland, IfG senior researcher and report author, said:  

“The new government will not have the luxury of time to decide how to respond to the crisis in prisons. Current emergency measures are both risky and insufficient. Implementing these short-term options – perhaps within days of the general election – is absolutely critical to avoid a looming emergency and to win the breathing space needed to develop longer-term solutions.”

Original article link: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/press-release/next-government-avoid-prisons-emergency

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