MoJ agrees sentencing delays as prisons near capacity limits

Judges urged to postpone jailing some categories of criminal to ease pressure on places
HMP Wandsworth, in south London, where overcrowding and staffing levels have been identified as problematic Photo: Google Maps

By Jim Dunton

12 Oct 2023

Crown court judges have been told to delay the sentencing of convicted criminals who are currently on bail and living in the community because the nation’s prisons are almost at capacity.

The orders came from Lord Justice Edis, who is senior presiding judge for England and Wales, and are due to take effect from next week, The Times reported.

The paper said circuit judges familiar with the guidance had reported that some inmates could be released early as a result of the shortage of prison beds, while cells in magistrates courts would be used to hold suspects remanded in custody because they are unsuitable to be granted bail.

According to the Ministry of Justice’s latest prison population statistics – published on 6 October – there were 88,016 people in prison in England and Wales last week, up from 87,793 the previous week. Men account for 96% of inmates.

The statistics said the prison estate had a “usable operational capacity” of 88,667 places, which includes a buffer of 1,340 places that is subtracted from full operational capacity to account for gender, security category and location demands.

Last week, justice secretary Alex Chalk told the Conservative Party conference that the government was exploring the potential to house some prisoners in jails in other European countries.

The MoJ said agreements to “rent” prison space would be dependent on facilities, regimes and rehabilitation meeting British standards.

“The government will legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows to enable any future arrangements and will require that conditions are to the same standard as prisons in England and Wales,” it said.

An unannounced inspection of HMP Dartmoor, also published last week, flagged that the prison had been due to close but had been kept open “due to population pressures”.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons said many of the problems at Dartmoor, which is one of the oldest prisons in the country, stemmed from the Prison Service’s failure to “plan adequately” for demand.

The MoJ did not refute the suggestion that new guidance on sentencing had been issued in light of the shortage of prison places.

It said around 100 additional places a week were being delivered through a combination of short- and long-term measures, but the prison population was growing by 100-200 a week.

A spokesperson said: “The criminal justice system has seen unprecedented growth in the prison population, following the pandemic and barristers’ strike, particularly among those awaiting trial, with 6,000 more prisoners on remand than pre-pandemic.

“The Prison Service has already put in place measures such as rapid deployment cells and doubling up cells to help manage these pressures, and the government is carrying out the biggest prison building campaign since the Victorian era to build 20,000 new places, making sure we always have the places we need.”

The MoJ said 350 out of a planned 1,000 prefabricated “rapid deployment cells” had now been delivered at five sites. 

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