Thousands will be freed early to ease jails crisis

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The Independent Online

Thousands of prisoners are to be let out of prison early without support from probation workers in a desperate measure by the Home Secretary to reduce the prison population.

David Blunkett said there would be an expansion of the electronic tagging scheme that would allow 1,350 prisoners serving sentences of between three and 12 months to go home early. He said that inmates would be "presumed" to be safe to release unless there were "compelling reasons" to think otherwise.

The change in emphasis in the use of the tagging scheme follows a report in The Independent last month that tens of thousands of prisoners eligible for early release were being kept locked up. Leaked documents showed that some prison staff did not agree with the scheme and prison governors were often afraid that released inmates would reoffend.

Mr Blunkett was forced to act as the prison population in England and Wales last week hit crisis point of 70,100, just a few hundred short of capacity. He said the extension of the home detention curfew scheme (HDC) would "help us manage the prison population by reducing overcrowding".

The Home Secretary said that from the beginning of May, offenders who had not been convicted of violent, sexual or serious drugs offences "will be presumed to be releasable" 60 days before their normal release date.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said that staff would not be involved in supervising the released prisoners. He said: "I am worried that the Home Secretary is silent on whether they will get any rehabilitation help."

A Home Office spokeswoman said that the released inmates would be monitored from a distance by staff from private security companies who would ensure that they abided by a night-time curfew. She said: "The actual HDC is only about getting you back to an address and back to a routine. It is about getting people back into the community."

Glen Smyth, chairman of Metropolitan Police Federation, said he was concerned about reoffending. He said: "Unless they have got a job or some training to go to they are going to be at a loose end when they are not under the curfew. Most crime is opportunistic in its committal."

When HDC was introduced three years ago there were hopes that it would result in the release of 30,000 prisoners a year. But because of the fears of governors, only 25 per cent of those eligible to be released have been allowed out. Their caution has ensured that re- offending rates of prisoners on HDC have been good.

Mr Blunkett said that, in three years, 44,000 prisoners had been released on HDC with less than 2 per cent offending during their time under curfew. He said: "It is far better that someone walks out of prison under escort, with a place to live and with an electronic tag round their ankle than with a bin sack of possessions, no home, no chance of a job and no incentive to go straight."

Nevertheless, the Home Secretary acknowledged that his announcement was something of an emergency measure. "In the short term we have to ease the burden on the Prison Service," he said.

Mike Newell, chairman of the Prison Governors' Association, welcomed the announcement and said that Britain was at last turning away from an American-style penal system where "the prison population goes up and up, you are spending more and more public money and there is no effect on crime".