Prisons crisis grows as population reaches a record 74,000

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The prison population in England and Wales has exceeded 74,000 for the first time.

In the past four weeks the number of prisoners has risen by 633 - the equivalent of a medium-sized jail - to 74,012, putting ever greater pressure on an already overcrowded system.

Figures published yesterday showed a steadily rising jail population, with record highs being reached in each of the past five weeks. The population has risen by 2,532 in the past year and is 45,000 higher than 10 years ago. Of the total prison population, 10,604 are young offenders between 15 and 21, of which 545 are female.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, received enough funding in the Budget earlier this year for an extra 1,000 prison places, bringing the total capacity to 78,700 by 2006. But the Home Office has predicted that between 8,000 and 22,000 places will be required on top of that figure. Ministers have yet to explain how the shortfall will be met.

More people are jailed in England and Wales than in any other western European country and more people are imprisoned per head than in Libya, Malaysia and Burma.

The Home Secretary has encouraged judges to make greater use of community sentences and curfew orders and said custody should only be used when strictly necessary.

But penal reformers say that politicians have created an environment that leads to longer sentences by "talking tough" on crime. A report this month by the Prison Reform Trust found that criminals convicted of minor offences are three times more likely to be jailed for the same offence than in 1991.

In April, Mr Blunkett extended measures to release more inmates from jail early in an attempt to ease the over- crowding crisis. From next week, prisoners serving between 18 months and four years will be eligible for release on home detention about 135 days early, instead of the previous 90 days. It was the second time that the use of home curfews, where offenders are released with an electronic tag, had been extended in seven months.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "This new record is a damning indictment of a government supposedly committed to social inclusion, and makes a mockery of its stated aim of rebalancing the criminal justice system.

"If anybody thinks that our overcrowded jails can reduce crime, they are in for a shock."