Of most concern is the sharp increase in the numbers of unconvicted people on remand - an increase of 1,500 over the past four months - who are swelling prison numbers to bursting point.
Last week's surge put the total prison population in England and Wales at 47,764 - 450 more than the country's jails are built to hold, and leaving 95 prisoners in costly and inappropriate police cells.
The population rise comes at a time when the numbers of bail hostels are being cut, yet six out of 10 of those remanded to prison will end up being acquitted or given a non- custodial sentence and the costs of keeping someone in jail at up to pounds 560 a week is nearly four times the pounds 150-a-week price for a hostel place.
Concerns over hostel closures have been expressed from Co Durham, where lawyers and magistrates have protested, to Devon, where a senior prison department official has warned of the 'risks of over- straining a very stretched' prison service.
Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: 'The reason behind this extraordinary and damaging rise must be the courts' response to the Home Secretary's get-tough policy and crackdown on so-called bail bandits - but the reality is the vast majority of people do not reoffend'.
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, which yesterday published a survey of prison practice in 23 countries, accused Michael Howard of 'ineffective and hysterical tough posturing'. The league's survey showed the total number in jails throughout the UK was 52,830, compared with Germany at 49,658, France at 48,675 and Turkey at 26,544.
The UK comes second only to Hungary in the number of people detained per 100,000 inhabitants. Hungary holds 146 per 100,000, compared to 92.1 in the UK, 78.8 for Germany and 56 for Italy.
Ms Crook said the Government had put prison at the centre of its criminal justice policies, which relied on punishment and retribution, for a decade. 'This gross over- use of prison is a matter of national shame.'
The prison population had until the beginning of this year been rising at around a rate of 500 a month from a low of just over 40,000 in early 1993. Then both Labour and the Conservatives put law and order at the top of their political agendas as crime rates continued to escalate, and courts appeared to react with tougher penalties.
There was the usual seasonal lull before Christmas when the population dropped and yesterday a Prison Service spokesman said the dramatic increase so far this year was simply a response to the courts getting back to full business after the Christmas recess. He added that most of the overcrowding problems were contained in the North-west, where repairs at Strangeways prison, the scene of 1991 riots, were putting strains on other jails.
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