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17 October 2023

PRT comment: Alex Chalk’s statement on prison capacity

Commenting on the justice secretary Rt Hon Alex Chalk KC MP’s statement to the House of Commons yesterday on prison capacity, Pia Sinha, Chief Executive of the Prison Reform Trust, said: 

“We are in a crisis situation where the prison system is just a matter of weeks away from running out of space and becoming dangerously overcrowded. In these circumstances, an early release scheme was the only realistic option available to the justice secretary to urgently take the pressure off and ensure there is sufficient head room. 

“Introducing a presumption against short sentences and increasing the uptake of non-custodial alternatives is a good thing in and of itself, regardless of its impact on demand. It has long been recognised that short sentences do more harm than good and that community orders are more effective at reducing reoffending. The Ministry of Justice’s own evidence shows that reconviction rates are lower for people on community orders than short sentences, and the positive impact is even more marked for people with mental ill-health. 

“However, a presumption will require legislation and could not be put in place in time to deal with the immediate crisis, which is why an early release scheme is so important. 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.” 

Key provisions announced in the justice secretary’s statement

Demand reduction measures

Early release scheme

Introduce provisions under the power in section 248 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to allow the prison service to move some lower level offenders out of prison on to licence up to 18 days before their automatic release date.

This will not apply to:

  • Anyone serving a life sentence
  • Anyone serving an extended determinate sentence
  • Anyone serving a sentence for an offence of particular concern
  • Anyone convicted of a serious violence offence
  • Anyone convicted of terrorism
  • Anyone convicted of a sex offence

This power will only be used for a limited period and only in targeted areas.

Every offender will be placed under strict licence conditions which provide a step-down from custody to living in the community. This may include:

  • First, being made to wear an electronic tag where needed to manage them safely,
  • Second, a condition not to contact a named individual directly or indirectly,
  • Third, having to live at an address approved by their probation officer,
  • Fourth, attending appointments,
  • Fifth, a condition not to enter certain areas such as postcodes.

Breach of these conditions could lead to the offender being recalled to custody – for the entire second half of their sentence.

This will be overseen by the Probation Service. The justice secretary did not promise any additional money for the service to implement these measures, but did say that the government had “injected £155m a year into” it.

HMPPS leadership will retain discretion to decide on further exemptions from release on advice of Governors, where concerns remain.

Other announced measures

  1. Legislate for a presumption that custodial sentences of less than twelve months in prison will be suspended, and offenders will be punished in the community instead, repaying their debt within communities.
  2. Double the number of GPS tags available to the court, to ensure that offenders can be monitored to track that they are going to work and also to ensure their freedom is curtailed in the evenings and at weekends with robust curfews of up to 20 hours a day. He also promised to make maximum use of new technologies, such as alcohol monitoring tags.
  3. Additional investment in electronic monitoring to enable the government to strengthen and expand successful step down programmes like Home Detention Curfews — “something we’ll keep under active review”.
  4. In order to reduce the remand population, Alex Chalk said he would consider whether to extend the discount to encourage people to plead guilty at the first opportunity.
  5. Review the use of recall for offenders on release who infringe the terms of their licence, although the justice secretary did not provide further details.
  6. Extend the Early Removal Scheme, so that we have the power to remove foreign criminals up to eighteen months before they are due to be released, up from twelve months now.
  7. Continue to strike new prisoner transfer deals like the one agreed with Albania, ensuring criminals from overseas serve their time at home rather than in Britain.

Transparency measures

To ensure public confidence, a new annual statement of prison capacity will be laid before both Houses. This will include a clear statement of current prison capacity, future demand, the range of system costs that would be incurred under different scenarios and our and our forward pipeline of prison build.

Capacity measures

  • £400m for more prison places — enough for over 800 new cells.
  • Already commissioned urgent work to conclude before the end of the year to identify new sites for us to purchase. This is backed by a down payment of up to £30m in funding to acquire land in 2024 and launch the planning process.
  • Bring forward legislation to enable prisoners to be held in prisons overseas — an approach taken by Belgium, Norway, and Denmark in recent years.

Other sentencing measures

  • The justice secretary reaffirmed his view that IPPs were “a stain on our justice system”. He said he was looking at “options to curtail the licence period to restore greater proportionality to IPP sentences, in line with recommendation 8 of the Justice Select Committee’s report, and I will come back to the House in due course.”
  • Legislate so that rapists as well as those convicted of equivalent sexual offences will serve the entirety of the custodial term handed down to them by the courts. Commencement of this provision will be dependent on there being sufficient prison capacity.