Prisoners could be released 60 days early under move to ease overcrowding

Criminals will be able to be released from jail two months early in an attempt to ease the pressure on overcrowded prisons, the Justice Secretary has announced.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said, following a written statement to the House of Commons by Alex Chalk on Monday evening, that prisons would have licence to release so–called “low level offenders” up to 35 days before their sentence is due to end.

Officials said the statement would also allow the UK Government to extend early release to up to 60 days if necessary in the future.

Labour said the extension to 60 days was “unprecedented” and branded the decision “completely unacceptable”.

Mr Chalk announced in October that the Government would use the powers it has to allow the prison service to let some prisoners out of jail up to 18 days early to ease overcrowding.

But with recent MoJ statistics showing that prisons in England and Wales are still nearing capacity, the Cabinet minister has opted to extend the end of custody supervised licence (ECSL) measures “to around 35-60 days”.

He said there was a need to “address the unsustainable growth in the remand population” since the coronavirus pandemic, saying those held in remand had increased by more than 6,000 in 2019 to more than 16,000 at present.

Domestic abuse sentences
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk’s announcement paves the way for some prisoners to be released two months early (Lucy North/PA)

In a statement issued after 8pm on Monday announcing measures to address the situation, the senior Conservative said: “We will also extend the existing end of custody supervised licence measure to around 35-60 days.

“We will enable this to happen, for a time-limited period, and work with the police, prisons and probation leaders to make further adjustments as required.

“This will only be for certain low level offenders.

“Where necessary, electronic monitoring will be applied, enhancing public protection. Ministers will continue to keep use of this measure under review.”

According to MoJ figures, the prison population stood at 88,220 as of March 8.

The operational capacity is a little over 89,000.

Prisons charity, the Howard League, states that the prison estate should not hold more than 79,597 people.

Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, said: “Successive Conservative governments have failed to build enough prison places.

“This has led to them granting early release to violent criminals, domestic abusers, and burglars. It’s a crisis of the Tories’ own making and it puts the public at risk.

“Under the cover of darkness, they’ve snuck out that they are extending the scheme from 18 days early release up to an unprecedented 60 days. The public will be rightly alarmed.

“This Government has been releasing prisoners in secret, including domestic abusers — and has activated a supposedly temporary scheme indefinitely.

“This is completely unacceptable and the Justice Secretary has a duty to be candid with the public.”

The Opposition frontbencher said Labour would build new prisons to “ease the capacity crisis” if Sir Keir Starmer’s party wins the next general election.

Mr Chalk said, as well as extending the ability for prison governors to release prisoners early, the UK Government would be increasing support for bail applications.

In his statement to Parliament, he said ministers were “exploring at pace with the senior judiciary the rollout of a remote, nationwide, pilot, crown court capable of hearing new bail applications”.

He added: “The pilot would monitor whether these additional measures result in an increase in the use of tagging and appropriate support packages in bail applications.

“In order to support this, the Government will invest £53 million additional funding to expand the Bail Information Service – part of the productivity package the Chancellor announced at the Budget.

“This will enable our court system to be more efficient by increasing the court-based staff and digital systems that can provide critical information to the judiciary – making the bail process more efficient.

“To support this work a further £22 million of additional funding will be available in 2024-25 to fund community accommodation.

“We will also increase awareness about the availability of tags, especially high-tech GPS and alcohol monitoring tags, to ensure that offenders can be monitored in the community.”