The story of our prison population

Work with Offenders looks at an intriguing new document from the Ministry of Justice

At the end of last month the MOJ published an interesting and somewhat unusual new report telling the story of the prison population in England and Wales between 1993 and the present day. The report is presented in slidedeck format and is a fascinating read.

The report shows how the prison population has increased by almost 65,000 since the end of World War II with the most rapid increase between 1993 and 2012 when the number of people in prison basically doubled.

All graphs and charts courtesy of MoJ

The MoJ identifies five key reasons for this sudden increase:

  1. A significant rise in Immediate Custodial Sentences
  2. Increase of more serious crimes which carry longer sentences
  3. Increase in time served
  4. Legislative changes made recall process simpler
  5. As sentences have grown longer, offenders spend longer on licence after release this drove an increase in recall

Since 2012 however, the prison population has fallen back slowly by a total of more than seven thousand – although it is important to note that more than half of this decrease is probably temporary – caused by much reduced court activity during coronavirus. The MoJ identifies six main factors for the recent drop:

  • A decrease of prisoners serving sentences of 4 years or less
  • A drop in number of indeterminate sentenced prisoners
  • The introduction of fixed term recall
  • Legislative changes which increased the numbers of people on Home Detention Curfew (HDC)
  • COVID 19 impact on court processes
  • COVID 19 temporary release scheme

Longer sentences 

The report also includes a lot of detail on sentencing practices including the fact that the length of determinate sentences have increased by 5.4 months on average since 1993. In fact, prisoners released in 2019 spent 5.6 months longer in prison than those released in 1999.

It is also interesting to note that the proportion of people in prison for violent, sexual or drug offences increased by 50% between 1993 and 2020 (the abbreviation ICS in the chart below refers to people serving “immediate custodial sentences”.)

The report also casts a light on a frequent forgotten section of the prison population, those individuals sentenced to imprisonment for public protection sentences (IPPs). IPPs were intended to protect the public from dangerous violent and sexual offenders whose crimes, while serious, did not warrant a life sentence. IPPs consist of a tariff period determined by the seriousness of the crime, followed by an indeterminate period which would be completed once the Parole Board was satisfied that an offender no longer posed a risk to the public. In the event, IPPs were imposed on many people committing less serious offences and were recognised as being unjust, with most people serving many more years than the original tariff set down by the sentencing judge. IPPs were abolished in 2012 however prisoners already serving IPP sentences have continued to do so:

Finally, the report calls attention to the relentless growth in the number of people released from prison but subsequently recalled which has been a significant factor in inflating our prison population. Even during the last eight years when the prison population has started to fall, the number of people recalled has continued to rise:

This report makes for a fascinating read for those interested in knowing how many people are in prison and why they are inside. You can read the report in full here.