Prison population set to grow by almost 20,000 in less than five years

Work with offenders on today’s official prison population projection

The Ministry of Justice and Office for National Statistics today published the latest projections for the number of people likely to be in prison in the coming years.

Today’s bulletin says that the prison population is projected to increase to 98,500 by March 2026. This is largely a result of the recruitment of an extra 23,400 police officers, which is likely to increase the number of people arrested and charge and therefore increase the future prison population. Other factors driving up the population are the government’s changes to sentencing and other criminal justice policies including provisions for changing the automatic release point for violent and sexual offenders sentenced to a standard determinate sentence of 4-7 years. This figure of 98,500 is a very significant increase on the current prison population – there were 79,580 people in prison last Friday 19 November (the MoJ publishes the prison population every week on a Friday morning).

The government makes it clear that these projections, although based on the best possible information available, could end up being wide of the mark. In particular, there is currently considerable uncertainty around how the courts will recover from COVID-19, and what the impact of the additional 23,400 police officers will be. Although this is clearly a big increase in police numbers, it’s important to remember not all police officer time is actually spent on criminal matters with sizeable proportions spent on road safety, public safety etc. Any differences in the assumptions made by the statisticians for what they call “upstream factors” (such as crime, sentencing and future policies) will all result in different projections. The recent government decision to focus more on crimes of sexual violence will also have an impact since, clearly, more serious crimes lead to longer prison sentences.

A changing prison population

The bulletin estimates that the population of over 50, over 60 and over 70 year-olds in prison will continue to increase, in line with the increasing overall prison population. It is estimated that by July 2025 (if the projections are correct) 14,800 or just over 15% of the projected 97,500 people in prison at that time will be aged 50 or older, with 3,600 of these aged in their sixties and 2,000 aged 70 years or older.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the numbers of children in custody have fallen continuously over the last decade, the number of boys aged 15-17 years old and held in HMPPS custody (not secure children’s homes) is expected to double from 343 in July this year to 700 in July 2026.

Also, despite the widespread campaigns to reduce the number of women in prison, the projection foresees the number of women in prison increasing by 35.6% between July 2021 and July 2025 (up from 3,170 to 4,300) compared to a projected increase in the number of men of “only” 23.6% (from 74,805 to 92,500).

Penal reform groups have been quick to protest, pointing out that the cost of  keeping an extra 18,000 people in prison by 2025, will be an additional £800m per year, on top of the £4 billion prison building programme. They also stress that we keep a greater proportion of our citizens in custody than any other country in Western Europe (with the current exception of Scotland).