UK government releases prisoners early to ease overcrowding in jails

LONDON — The British government triggered emergency measures to release some criminals from prisons early and to delay the start of certain court hearings to prevent overcrowding in jails.

The prison population in England and Wales has doubled in the last 30 years as a result of longer criminal sentences and a tougher approach to violent and drug-related crime.

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the early release would only apply to prisoners at the end of their sentences and they would be under strict supervision, including electronic tags.

Prisoners convicted of terrorism, sexual or serious violent crimes would be excluded and prison governors would have the power to block some individuals being released, the spokesperson said.

The government is releasing the prisoners early to relieve “short-term pressure on the prison estate,” the spokesperson said. “It is a temporary scheme.”

The Ministry of Justice said in a separate statement on Wednesday that it had initiated a measure whereby detained defendants who were denied bail could be returned to police custody instead of going to prison if there was no space available there.

“We have initiated a previously used measure to securely transfer prisoners between courts and custody and ensure there is always a custody cell available should they be remanded,” the ministry said.

It was last used in March for about a week.

The opposition Labour Leader Keir Starmer accused Sunak in parliament of issuing “get out of jail free cards” to criminals and asked if people convicted of domestic abuse were being released early.

Last summer, the prison population of England and Wales stood at a record high of 88,225, up eight per cent from a year earlier, leaving a usable capacity of 557 places, official figures show.

Three in every five prisons were overcrowded, meaning they held more inmates than could be provided with a decent standard of accommodation.

Sam Townend, chair of the Bar Council, which represents lawyers, said “we cannot continue like this” and “the government must now show that it takes criminal justice seriously” by investing in prisons, courts, and the entire system.

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