Police told to arrest fewer people to ease prison overcrowding

‘Any planned operations where large numbers of arrests may take place’ should potentially be paused, police chiefs advised

Sophie Wingate
Wednesday 22 May 2024 05:55 BST
David Gauke describes shocking videos emerging from UK prisons

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Police are reportedly being advised to arrest fewer people in a bid to ease overcrowding in prisons.

Force chiefs are being told to consider halting “non-priority arrests” until there is capacity in England and Wales’s jails, The Times reported.

The newspaper said it obtained an internal document from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) which said “any planned operations where large numbers of arrests may take place” should potentially be paused to ease pressures in the criminal justice system.

This is thought to apply to operations that do not have to happen on a specific date and could be arranged for a later time.

The news is likely to heap pressure on Rishi Sunak’s government, which has recently come under fire over a policy to free criminals from jail early and delays to court cases as part of efforts to cut prison overcrowding.

First announced last year, the government insisted the early release scheme would be temporary and would only allow “low-level offenders” out of prison up to 18 days early under strict supervision.

It beggars belief that police are being told to sit on their hands and ignore crime.

Shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood

But earlier this month, it emerged that ministers were preparing to extend the scheme for a second time so some criminals could be freed from jail up to 70 days before their release date. This is expected to take effect from Thursday.

Labour said the Tories’ “mismanagement” of the criminal justice system “cannot go on”.

A separate, internal letter from the NPCC to chief constables in England and Wales, seen by The Times, warned that the government’s contingency measures are having an “unsustainable operational impact on policing”, risk public safety and could limit officers’ ability to investigate crime.

The paper said the memo also warned of the risk of suspects suing police forces for unlawful detention due to the knock-on effects of the Ministry of Justice’s so-called Operation Early Dawn.

The measure allows defendants to be held in police cells – and not be transferred to magistrates’ courts for bail hearings – until prison beds become available.

Labour’s shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood said: “It beggars belief that police are being told to sit on their hands and ignore crime because the Conservatives have mismanaged the criminal justice system so badly.

“Rishi Sunak’s rap sheet now reads: the rushed early release of domestic abusers on to our streets, deliberate delays to trials and victims waiting years for justice. The public will be absolutely dumbfounded. This cannot go on.

“Labour is the party of law and order. We will build the new prisons needed and make Britain’s streets safe.”

A government spokesperson said: “Public safety will always be our first priority. That is why we have backed our police with the officers and resources they need to keep our streets safe and are introducing new laws to lock up the most dangerous offenders for longer while delivering the biggest prison expansion programme in 100 years.

“We continue to see pressure on our jails following the impact of the pandemic and barristers’ strike and have initiated a previously used operational measure to securely transfer prisoners between courts and custody.”

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper tweeted: “Truly shocking state of law & order after 14 years of Tory government.

“Arrests have already halved since 2010. Yet now police are being told to make even fewer arrests. Because of irresponsible Tory failures & chaos.

“More criminals let off. More victims let down. That’s Tory policy.”

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