Immediate steps to reduce the prison population | Nacro

Immediate steps to reduce the prison population

Immediate Steps to ease the prisons crisis

Prisons are at breaking point. Overcrowded, under-resourced and inhumane, the current state of prisons in England and Wales is failing us all. With overcrowding so severe it is virtually impossible to ensure that people leave prison with the skills and support to be able to turn their lives around and turning their backs on offending. After years of warnings and repeated announcements of more emergency measures, our prisons are full again.

The new Government has no option but to take more emergency action to tackle the immediate crisis. But at the same time must commit to a longer-term approach which stops us lurching from crisis to crisis and ensures our prisons can deliver on the core purposes of protection of the public and rehabilitation and our justice system delivers for victims and society as a whole.

Until we get a grip on overcrowding, all the things we know contribute to rehabilitation and reduce reoffending are simply not possible.

Below we set out a number of immediate steps we believe the Government should consider to tackle overcrowding. These are not a wish-list but a set of practical options which we believe will need to be considered in response to the immediate crisis. These steps will lead to more people being supervised and supported in communities. Critical to this will be ensuring there is support and housing solutions which are suitable, safe and provide appropriate support. There are many organisations and agencies who can help develop these solutions and we recommend the new Government involve these as soon as possible, including local authorities, mayors, voluntary organisations and housing providers.

1. Reduce the flow of people going into prison

    • Bring forward immediate legislation to introduce a presumption against short prison sentences. There is a continuous flow of people entering prison on sentences of less than 12 months. All the evidence shows that short prison sentences don’t work and do not reduce reoffending. In fact, reoffending rates are higher for people on short prison sentences than those on community orders or suspended prison sentences. Introducing a presumption against short prison sentences would therefore not only free up spaces in prison for people who have committed more serious offences, but would also ensure that the system is working in the most effective way to reduce reoffending. Additionally, the Government could also consider a presumption against imprisonment for certain non-violent crimes and alternative measures in the community.
    • Reduce the number of people recalled to prison by implementing an immediate review of the threshold for recall to stop people being recalled for administrative issues. The number of people being recalled to prison after release has risen significantly over recent years. Recall is an important tool but it is likely that the use of recall could be reduced whilst still ensuring effective risk management.

2. Reduce the numbers of people currently in prison

    • Immediate resentencing of all Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) prisoners or immediate legislation to extend the Secretary of State’s power to release IPP prisoners, based on assessment of risk. Controversial and unjust, the IPP sentence, a form of imprisonment without a defined release date, was officially abolished in 2012 yet there are still around 3000 people in prison, 1200 of whom have never been released. And 60% of those have been held at least 10 years beyond their original ‘tariff’ or minimum term. Taking immediate action to resentence people, as recommended by the Justice Select Committee, or release people based on assessment of risk would not only be likely to free up much needed space in prisons but would also finally end the hangover of this unjust sentence.
    • Amend the automatic release point for prisoners sentenced to four years or less from 50% – considering the impact of changing this to 43% or 40%. It is very unlikely that the measures listed above will be sufficient to tackle the immediate overcrowding crisis and therefore other options will need to be taken. Currently people in prison for four years or less serve 50% of their sentence in prison and serve the rest of their sentence in the community on licence, supervised by the probation service. Reducing the proportion of the sentence spent in prison is therefore another option for the Government. Any such change would need to be implemented with high quality risk assessments, and exclude those identified as high risk. This change would likely free up thousands of spaces in prison and could potentially be an easier to manage approach than the current End of Custody Supervised Licence (early release) scheme.
    • Review the point at which people serving sentences of longer than 4 years are first eligible to apply for parole. For people serving longer sentences, the point at which someone is eligible to apply for parole is dependent on the sentence they receive. This point could be reviewed and brought forward to earlier in someone’s sentence, increasing the possibility of being released earlier on parole. This change wouldn’t automatically lead to parole being granted as each individual would have to show that they are eligible and safe for release.

3. Increase the capacity of Probation to support these changes

    • Relieve the pressure on Probation to support any changes by increasing the role of the voluntary sector in coordinating and providing support to people on release allowing Probation to focus on effective supervision. Any of the above changes will require supervision from the probation service and it will be critical to ensure they are able to effectively carry this out. Utilising the strengths and experience of voluntary sector organisations who already operate in this space and expanding their role in coordinating and delivering support will relieve some of the pressure on probation to be able to focus on effective supervision.

As well as taking immediate action, we need to get beyond crisis management and take steps now to build an effective justice system over the longer term. A longer term approach must consider what the purpose of prison is and who should be sent to prison and for how long. We currently have some of the longest prison sentences in Western Europe and our prison population has almost doubled in the last 30 years, without evidence that this reduces reoffending. Any review of sentencing must therefore include addressing the decades of unevidenced sentence inflation. The current approach has failed for too long, its urgent we act now to create an effective and sustainable justice system which delivers for victims and communities and better serves us all.

Related work on Government policy

Following the General Election, we set out five priorities for the first months of the new Government.  You can read more here.