Prisoners to be released early to ease overcrowding

Wandsworth prison

The government will announce plans on Friday to release prisoners early to stop jails becoming full, the BBC has confirmed.

Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood is expected to set out a suite of emergency measures to free up space in prisons.

The main measure will be automatically releasing prisoners on “standard determinate sentences” after they have served 40% of their sentence, government sources confirmed.

Currently, they are released after serving 50% of their sentence.

There will be exemptions for sexual and serious violent offenders.

In March, the then-Conservative government announced plans to release prisoners up to two months early in a bid to ease overcrowding.

Speaking to the BBC's Today Podcast, former Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said there were further plans to release some prisoners after 40% of their sentence and to impose shorter sentences but this were shelved over fears of a lack of support in Parliament.

Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer, currently in Washington DC attending a Nato summit, was asked by reporters what he had discovered about the state of public spending now he’s in office.

“Some of what we’ve found is shocking, not so much about the finances, but I have to say, on prisons," he said.

“The situation is worse than I thought it was. I’m pretty shocked that it’s been allowed to get into that situation. It’s reckless to allow them to get into that place.”

Last week the Prison Governors’ Association, which represents 95% of prison governors in England and Wales, warned that jails were due to run out of space within days.

Alex Chalk, who was justice secretary until just last week, when his party lost power in the general election, told the Today podcast one of the reasons behind overcrowding was the Covid pandemic, which saw court cases delayed.

Mr Chalk, who lost his seat at the general election, said he thought more people should be given suspended sentences, rather than custodial sentences, which he said increased the likelihood of reoffending.

Asked why he didn't implement that when in government, he said: “We have to remember there are seasons in politics, and it was difficult, as we know, at the end of the last Parliament to be satisfied that you would be able to get things through Parliament.

"At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious you’ve got to win votes."

Asked if the then-Prime Minister Rishi Sunak blocked the changes because it would be unpopular with MPs, Mr Chalk said he wouldn't go into details of behind-closed-doors discussions but added: "It is reasonable to say there were a variety of views about what could be got through Parliament."

He said the new Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood would have to be "very frank and credible about the long term".

Releasing prisoners early would buy the government "18 months" he said but added: "It won't buy you any more than that."

He added: "If the situation is that we haven’t got new money, are you seriously going to be saying that instead of building a new hospital, we’re going to be building a new nick at the cost of £600,000 per cell?"

Labour has not yet set out what it will do in the longer term, but Sir Keir's appointment of James Timpson as prisons minister suggests he will pursue a change of approach.

Mr Timpson, the boss of the shoe repair chain which has a policy of employing ex-offenders, said in an interview with Channel 4 earlier this year that "we're addicted to punishment” and that only a third of prisoners should be there.