Scheme to free offenders early expanded due to lack of space in prisons

A scheme to release offenders early has been massively expanded because of a lack of space in prisons, the government has announced.

It means prisoners serving sentences of less than four years can be let out of prison two months early.

The End of Custody Supervised Licence scheme was launched in October and originally allowed prisoners to be released up to 18 days before the end of their sentence to reduce an "acute and exceptional demand" on prison places.

That time period has now been extended, so that prisoners can be released between 35 and 60 days before the end of their sentence.

Sex offenders, terrorists and category A prisoners, plus those serving four years or more, are excluded from the scheme.

It marks a move that has taken many in the probation service by surprise.

"We were never informed this scheme would be extended to up to 60 days. The additional work this will generate will simply overwhelm our members who are already battling with dangerously high workloads," said Ian Lawrence, the general secretary of NAPO (National Association of Probation Officers).

Sources close to the prison service have expressed concern about the extent to which the scheme is being amended, at pace, and with little to no warning.

They say they have fears such extensions make releases unsafe - in some cases meaning prisoners are released without permanent accommodation, as housing places are meticulously planned with little margin to amend at short notice.

Without a home, some offenders cannot be fitted with the appropriate location monitoring tags.

The government insists this is a temporary measure to relieve capacity in prisons, but last month Sky News disclosed leaked documents which reveal intentions for it to last for an "undefined" period. It was "updated" and "revised" to apply in new prisons, building on the 21 where the scheme was initially launched.

In the written ministerial statement published late on Monday, Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said the measure was "time limited" but accepted the government may need to make "further adjustments as required".

This is because the prison service is under immense pressure. Figures published on Friday showed 88,220 people are currently behind bars in England and Wales.

The number of people that can be held in "safe and decent accommodation" in prison, known as the "certified normal accommodation" or "uncrowded capacity", is considered by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to be 79,507.

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That means the current overall system is almost 111% at capacity, or overcrowded.

But Labour is calling for the government to be more transparent about its plans to release prisoners.

"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," said Shabana Mahmood, the shadow justice secretary.

"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."