Emergency actions taken by Justice Secretary to tackle prison crisis

The average custodial sentence length was 24.3 months last year compared to 17 months a decade earlier

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk was forced to make an emergency announcement yesterday (16 October 2023) introducing new measures to tackle the ever-growing prison population. Mr Chalk addressed the House of Commons and set out two main initiatives to try to tackle the crisis.

These focused on:

  1. Releasing some “lower level offenders” on licence 18 days before their automatic release date.
  2. Legislating for “a presumption that custodial sentences of less than twelve months in prison will be suspended”.
  3. Extending the Early Removal Scheme, so that the government has the power to remove foreign criminals up to eighteen months before they are due to be released, up from the current twelve months.

The context

The prison population declined noticeably throughout the pandemic, primarily because the different restrictions meant that the courts were not sitting. The resultant backlogs have still not been addressed with the latest figures (covering the year up to 30 June) showing the number of outstanding cases in our Crown Courts reaching his highest ever figure of 64,709.

By April 2021, the prison population had fallen by almost 6,000 from the previous year – on 23 April it stood at 77,738 compared to 83,654 on 28 February 2020. The number of people inside were slow to rise again and were still on 81,866 on 21 October last year. However, over the last year, the population has surged relentlessly hitting 88,225 last Friday (13 October 2023).

It is not lost on penal reformers, that much of the long-term increase is attributable to the Government’s own policies of sending people to prison for longer periods of time, in addition to imposing new restrictions on release under parole. The average custodial sentence length was 24.3 months last year compared to 17 months a decade earlier. Mr Chalk glossed over this point, instead pinning the blame for over-crowing on the jump in remands, in part caused by the pandemic. It is true that the remand population has increased significantly from 9,000 in 2019 to more than 15,000 currently.

The chart below shows the fluctuations in the prison population since just before the pandemic.

Further information

The details of these actions are not clear at this point although the Justice Secretary did add that a number of other actions were being considered including:

  • Extending the discount off a custodial sentence for pleading guilty early in proceedings – Mr Chalk hopes that this will have a particular impact on the remand population.
  • Reviewing the use of prison recall, especially when someone has not committed a new offence.
  • Looking at options to reduce the current 10 year licence period for people serving IPP sentences. There remain around 3,000 IPP prisoners in custody despite their original tariff expiring years ago, many of whom have been recalled to prison on several occasions.