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25 September 2017

Projected rise in prison numbers means government cannot build its way out of a prisons crisis

The Prison Reform Trust has today (25 September) published its response to HM Treasury’s consultation on this year’s Budget, which highlights concerns about the viability of the Ministry of Justice’s prison building programme in light of the projected increase in prison numbers.

Since May this year growth in the prison population has been extremely strong—rising by over 1,200 places in only 13 weeks, and it remains higher than at any other point in the last four years.

Prison population projections, published last month, revealed that the population is expected to grow by around 1,600 above current levels by 2022. They also reveal that projections published last year, on which plans will have been made for the prison estate, were significantly more optimistic—with a gap between the 2016 projection and the 2017 projection of around 2,000 additional spaces by the end of this year.

The practical implication of this change is dramatic. Under the government’s prison estate transforming programme (PETP), it had planned to replace old inefficient prisons with new prisons that are cheaper to run, through committed investment of £1.3bn during the current spending review period. The eventual savings were anticipated to contribute to the Ministry of Justice’s overall savings plan.

However, the additional and unanticipated rise in prison numbers, together with the new population projections, raise serious doubts about the sustainability of the PETP programme. Without the option of closing older prisons, as now appears inevitable under the current population projections, no funds are released to run the new prisons planned—still less to finance the building and running of new prisons that will be required over and above the 10 committed by the previous government.

In order to relieve pressure on HM Prisons and Probation Service and avert the likely shortfall in available capital to build and run new prisons, the submission outlines immediate and practical steps which the government can take to deliver an incremental and sustained reduction in our prison population. This includes:

  • Expediting the release of people currently serving the Indeterminate sentence for Public Protection by introducing new legislation to convert them to fixed length sentences, starting with the shortest tariff lengths where the greatest injustice has occurred.
  • Reducing the large numbers of people recalled to custody after release by replacing mandatory supervision of people serving prison sentences of less than 12 months, with voluntary supervision.
  • Limiting the use of custodial remands—More than one in 10 people (10,328) remanded in custody in 2016 were subsequently acquitted. A further 14% of people (13,224) received a non-custodial sentence.
  • Revising the sentencing framework to reverse the effects of sentence inflation over the last two decades.
  • Implementing the recommendations of the Lammy review to reduce disproportionality in the criminal justice system.
  • A full roll out of a national liaison and diversion scheme to ensure people with mental health needs and learning disabilities get the treatment and support they need.
  • A particular focus on effective community approaches for women offenders.
  • A distinct approach to young adults and recognition of maturity at all stages of the criminal justice process.

Our submission highlights the recent success in the youth justice system in reducing numbers in custody. The number of children imprisoned fell by two-thirds between 2007 and 2014, whilst proven offences by the same age group also fell by 72% during the same period.

Commenting, Peter Dawson, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“The dramatic and unanticipated rise in the prison population has torpedoed the Ministry of Justice’s new for old prison building plans. We can expect that HM Treasury will not be prepared to bail out the justice department again. The government has to start looking at practical solutions now to reduce prison numbers.”