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Prisons grow more crowded despite falling crime rate

More offenders were jailed last year, and received longer prison sentences, despite an overall fall in the number of criminal convictions, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) disclosed yesterday.

The new figures underline the pressures faced by jails in England and Wales, which currently house more than 87,100 inmates, an increase of almost 2,200 on a year ago. The ministry also disclosed that the proportion of repeat offenders appearing in court has hit a record high: more than 100,000 of the offenders sentenced last year had 15 or more previous convictions or cautions.

Two million people fell foul of the criminal justice system in 2010 – a fall of nearly 6 per cent – as the number of both prosecutions and convictions continued to fall. Despite the downward trend, which began in 2004, the number of people sent straight to jail rose by more than 1 per cent to 102,700. The average sentence passed down by courts was 14.7 months, compared with 11.1 months a decade earlier.

People convicted after the riots in London and English cities were included in the figures, but the MoJ's chief statistician, Iain Bell, said they had not had a significant impact on the statistics overall. They were published a day after Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, claimed the prison population had been swollen by thousands because of the "popular press".

Penal reformers reacted with dismay last night to figures showing that career criminals are filling a growing amount of jail space. The proportion of criminals with 15 convictions has risen from less than 18 per cent of those sentenced in 2001 to 31.2 per cent last year. Mr Bell said: "It has been an ongoing increase over the last few years."

By contrast, the number of first time offenders has dropped from 11.9 per cent in 2001 to 10.1 per cent in 2011. The figures cast fresh doubt on Mr Clarke's ability to achieve a "rehabilitation revolution" in prisons.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "The Government needs to get to grips with people stuck in a destructive pattern of offending. To break this cycle, it should increase treatment for addicts, build on the success of intensive supervision of offenders in the community and make constructive use of custody for serious and violent offenders."

An MoJ spokesman said: "We are making prisons places of meaningful work, toughening community sentences, tackling criminals drug and alcohol problems, and making them pay back to victims and communities."

The figures also revealed an 11 per cent increase last year for the number of cautions given to sex offenders, as well as a rise in the number of convictions for sex offences, from 5,788 in 2010 to 5,977 last year.