No wonder the prisons are full

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Indy Politics

John Reid was engulfed by criticism from all sides as judges and criminal justice experts tore into his attempts to get a grip on the prison population crisis.

The Home Secretary's week came to a disastrous end as Rod Morgan resigned as chairman of the Youth Justice Board (YJB) with a withering attack on Mr Reid's plans to build more jails as a "counsel of despair".

Judges also reacted angrily to Mr Reid's plea for them to lock up fewer non-dangerous offenders, variously warning they would have to release people who ought to be jailed or that they would not be swayed by his strictures. And Mr Reid suffered the embarrassment of having to admit in the High Court that his department had been acting unlawfully by locking up young asylum seekers.

Pressure has been mounting all month on Mr Reid, who has acknowledged his head is "on the block" if he fails to turn round the troubled department. Tony Blair intervened last night, insisting that the Home Secretary had merely been reminding the judiciary of existing guidlines on sentencing.

The Prime Minister said: "Let me make this absolutely clear: if any judge feels that a person is a threat or a danger to the public, and feels that they should be put in custody, then they should put them in custody."

Mr Reid said he was only following a "perfectly normal procedure" by writing to judges and magistrates.

Professor Morgan has presided over a steady increase in numbers of under-18s in custody, despite a Home Office commitment to reduce the total. As it became clear his contract would not be renewed, he quit his job with a damning verdict on the policies of his political masters. Professor Morgan told BBC2's Newsnight: "We are standing on the brink of a prisons crisis. We have tonight lots of people in police cells because there is no space for them in custody and that's true for children and young people also.. The Government's targets for bringing criminals to justice were having "perverse consequences", he protested, as minor offenders who were previously dealt with informally were caught up in an over-stretched criminal justice system. Professor Morgan said locking youngsters up had very little success in stopping them reoffending, describing the idea of building ever more prisons to solve the crisis as a "counsel of despair".

Martin Narey, the former director general of the Prison Service, said: "One of the reasons why we are in the midst of such a dreadful population crisis in prisons is that many offenders - many of them children - are in prison when there is no need for them to be there."

Meanwhile, Keith Morris, 46, from Newton Abbot, Devon, pleaded guilty to child sex offences but was granted bail following Mr Reid's plea to reserve jail for the most serious offenders. Judge Graham Cottle said: "There are difficulties remanding people in custody at the moment and the only reason I am having any discussion about this is because of those difficulties." And on Thursday, in giving Derek Williams, 46, from Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, a six-month suspended sentence for child pornography charges, Judge John Rogers said: "As of yesterday I have to bear in mind a communication from the Home Secretary".

At Northampton Crown Court yesterday, Judge Richard Bray said politicians should wake up to the fact that prisoners were reoffending "because judges can no longer pass deterrent sentences". He said: "I am well aware there is overcrowding in the prison and detention centres. That is not going to prevent me from passing proper sentences in each case."

At the High Court, Mr Reid conceded his department had broken the law over the detention of scores of young asylum seekers. His admission that the policy "did not strike the right balance" came as the court considered four test cases brought by teenagers who are seeking damages for loss of liberty. Lawyers say the final numbers seeking compensation could exceed 100.

The storm around Mr Reid overshadowed a move to make it easier to deport foreign criminals. Under the UK Borders Bill, immigration officers will gain new powers of arrest. It will also make it easier to deport foreign nationals in prison.

* Amnesty International said it was deeply concerned for the safety of two men - known as "Q" and "K" - recently deported from the UK to Algeria. They are believed to be in the custody of the DRS, Algeria's military police, which been repeatedly accused of torturing prisoners. They were deported on security grounds after being labelled "suspected international terrorists" by the UK authorities.

For the reason behind the jails crisis, we should look no further than this government's get-tough policy. Here are 10 examples

Naked rambler's seven months

Richard Gough, 47, was jailed for seven months in August after a court ruled that, during his efforts to promote naturism, he had committed a breach of the peace and exposed himself in public.

The depressed mother

Angela Schumann, 28, was jailed for 18 months in November after trying to kill her daughter by jumping from the Humber bridge with the two-year-old. She was suffering from depression.

Climate change demonstrator

Irene Willis, 61, from Suffolk, was sentenced to 21 days' in prison two years ago after refusing to pay a fine for demonstrating against climate change and nuclear weapons at USAF Lakenheath.

Council tax refusenik

Josephine Rooney, 69, from Derby, spent one night in prison last year for refusing to pay her council tax bill. She was released early after a stranger paid the £798 bill for her.

RAF man said war was illegal

Malcolm Kendall-Smith, 38, an RAF flight lieutenant, was jailed for eight months for failing to obey a lawful order in relation to service in Iraq. He had argued that the war in Iraq was illegal.

Homeless hostel couple

Ruth Wyner and John Brock were sentenced to four and five years' jail for allowing drugs to be sold at their hostel for the homeless in Cambridge. Their sentences were reduced by the Court of Appeal.

Teenager who took her own life

Sarah Campbell, 18, from Cheshire, committed suicide in prison in 2003 after she became the first person to be convicted of manslaughter by harassment after stealing credit cards from a stranger.

False benefits claimant

Tameena Nadir, 38, from Leeds, received a seven month sentence in December after falsely claiming £40,000 benefits that she said she needed for her children's education after her divorce.

Pensioner's protest

Richard Fitzmaurice, 75, from Norfolk, was sentenced to 32 days imprisonment in November last year for not paying his council tax in protest at the soaring bills wiping out his pension.

Stole a mobile phone

Joseph Scholes, 16, was sentenced to two years in 2002 a week after the Lord Chief Justice declared that mobile phone thieves should be jailed. He hanged himself in his cell.

'Not fit for purpose'

* OVERCROWDING

The prison population passed the 80,000 mark last November. Mr Reid has activated a plan that involves the use of police cells. There are doubts about how an extra 8,000 prison places promised by the Government will be funded

* SENTENCING ROWS

Yesterday, Mr Reid denied accusations that he pressured judges and magistrates by urging them, in a letter, to jail only the most dangerous and persistent criminals. He said he was merely reminding them of existing guidelines

* OFFENCES ABROAD

An internal inquiry is underway into why the details of 27,500 offences committed by Britons abroad were not added to the police computer

* CONTROL ORDERS

A third suspected terrorist vanished within days of being issued with a control order that was meant to restrict his movements

* OPEN PRISONS

The Prison Service admits that it does not know how many inmates have absconded from England's 15 open prisons. It estimates that almost 700 walked out in the 12 months to April last year.

'We're standing on brink of a prisons crisis'

Professor Rod Morgan, OUTGOING HEAD OF YOUTH JUSTICE BOARD

"We're standing on the brink of a prisons crisis. We have lots of people in police cells because there is no space for them in custody and that's true for children also."

Judge Richard Bray, NORTHAMPTON CROWN COURT

"What message does it send to criminals when they are told in the dock they will only have to serve half the sentence the judge thinks appropriate?"

Judge Graham Cottle, ON DECISION TO RELEASE PAEDOPHILE

"There are difficulties remanding people in custody at the moment and the only reason I am having any discussion about this is because of those difficulties."

Martin Narey, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF BARNARDO'S

"One reason there is such a population crisis in prisons is that many offenders - many of them children - are in prison when there is no need for them to be there."

David Davis, SHADOW HOME SECRETARY

"People guilty of serious offences should not escape custody. But, yet again - as a consequence of the Government's failure - this is what is happening."

Nick Clegg, LIB DEM HOME AFFAIRS SPOKESMAN

"You have to engage with offenders, young or old, to bring them back from a life of criminality, and that is what this Government has systematically refused to do".

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