Ministers to set out reforms following reports that prisons are full

Ministers are set to set out reforms to the criminal justice system following revelations that prisons are full to the point that dangerous offenders may not be incarcerated.

This week the senior judge in England and Wales, Lord Edis, ordered a delay to the sentencing of convicted criminals currently on bail.

From Monday this could see the sentences put off for rapists and burglars, according to The Times newspaper.

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Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, yesterday admitted that there is “huge pressure” on the prison system but refused to address the concerning reports over prisons nearing capacity.

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk speaking during the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester.Justice Secretary Alex Chalk speaking during the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester.
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk speaking during the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester.

“Decisions on sentencing are taken by the judiciary independently. What the Government is doing is expanding at pace the number of prison places that we have,” he told Times Radio.

Ahead of an anticipated address to MPs in the House of Commons on Monday when Parliament returns from Recess, Alex Chalk, the Justice Secretary, yesterday was due to meet partners and will be “setting out a programme of reform in the coming days to ensure that we can continue to strengthen public protection by locking up the most dangerous criminals.”

Tana Adkin KC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said judges would still follow sentencing guidelines for serious offences like violence or sexual violence that require immediate custody.

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But she warned that prison overcrowding has reached a critical point in terms of judges managing ongoing cases.

Figures show the number of people held on remand is up by more than 60 per cent pre-pandemic levels, from 9,500 then to 15,500 at the end of June.

The UK’s prison population has increased substantially since the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and, according to the latest figures, there are now 88,016 prisoners.

As of October 6, capacity across the whole prison estate stood at 88,667.

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The Times quoted an anonymous senior judge as saying they had been “ordered/strongly encouraged” not to send to prison a defendant who appears before them on bail due to concerns the prison system is at capacity.

The Judicial Office, which supports the judiciary, said it would not comment on what was said during an internal meeting.

The independent body said it could not confirm whether new guidance on sentencing had been issued to judges.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are categorical that the most serious offenders should be sent to prison and that anyone deemed a risk to public safety is remanded in custody while awaiting trial. Reports to the contrary are false.

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“Following the pandemic and barristers’ strike, the criminal justice system has seen a significant spike in the prison population, with 6,000 more prisoners on remand than before the pandemic.

“While we are carrying out the biggest prison-building programme since the Victoria era, and have taken decisive action to expand capacity further by doubling up cells in the short-term, the prison estate remains under pressure.”

Labour’s shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood said: “After 13 years of failure with the Conservatives, we are now seeing the serious repercussions of continuously ignoring the warnings on the broken criminal justice system and a prison estate in chaos.

“The Tories are unable to get rapists behind bars and now the public know why.

“People up and down will be asking: if this Government can’t fulfil the basic duty of keeping criminals locked up, why are they still the Government?”

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