Prison population exceeds capacity for the first time

The jail overcrowding crisis reached a new peak yesterday as the number of prisoners rose above normal capacity for the first time. There are now 82,006 inmates in England and Wales, almost 100 above the normal ceiling set by the Prison Service.

While there are another 2,000 places in the system, finding suitable space will become increasingly difficult because free cells may be not be in suitable types of jail, or in the right part of the country.

As a result of the crisis, the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, was forced to ask magistrates to send fewer people to prison. Mr Straw urged the courts to consider using more non-custodial sentences, which are more effective at stopping criminals reoffending than the short prison sentences magistrates can impose.

But Cindy Barnett of the Magistrates' Association responded by warning that it would be "very unfortunate" were ministers to pressure the courts over the sentences they handed down. I think it is incredibly important that in each individual case, whether it is a judge or a magistrate, the sentencer makes up their mind as to what is the most appropriate sentence," Ms Barnett said.

"We are aware of the pressures on prison places at the moment. We don't use custody lightly, we use it when it is so serious that nothing else can be justified and we must make that individual decision. I think pressure on individual sentencers ... would be wrong."

Ministers were also accused of taking "panic measures" in an attempt to ease the crisis, after announcing plans to free foreign criminals earlier than happens at present.

Thousands of convicted offenders will be eligible for release and deportation from Britain 270 days before the halfway point of their sentences, rather than 135 days as had been the case.

The shadow Justice Secretary, Nick Herbert, said: "The prison system is now in genuine crisis. Contrary to what Jack Straw implies, this is not the fault of magistrates, but the result of sheer incompetence by this Government.

"[The Government] has ignored repeated warnings that cells were needed, failed to build adequate capacity, and their belated prison-building programme has fallen behind schedule."

He added: "Jack Straw must come to Parliament on Monday to explain how he is going to deal with this crisis of the Government's own making and what provision he has made for emergency capacity.

"This Government's catastrophic mismanagement of our prisons cannot continue."