Defendants convicted of some of the most serious crimes including rape and burglary will reportedly face delays in going to prison from next week because jails are full.
Crown Court sentencing hearings are set to be delayed to keep down prison populations, leaving anyone on bail either free in the community or held in cells in magistrates’ courts.
Figures uncovered by The Independent last week show overcrowding in prisons is nearing breaking point.
Lord Edis, the senior presiding judge for England and Wales, has ordered judges to delay sentencing from Monday, The Times reported.
And justice ministers are understood to have proposed some prisoners be released early.
The chief of prison governors, former home secretary Jack Straw and former Tory prisons minister Rory Stewart all warned last week that early release may have to be considered to tackle the crisis.
Nearly two-thirds of jails in England are officially overcrowded, with the number of free spaces in the prison estate falling from just 768 last week to 651 this week, over which period the male prison population has increased by 211 to 84,412.
A prison union threatened to take legal action if the Ministry of Justice asked governors to find extra capacity in already packed prisons.
Andrea Albutt, president of the Prison Governor’s Association (PGA), said: “If the government further overcrowd our prisons, if they say to our members ‘you will put more people in your already overcrowded prison’, we will take legal action.”
One senior judge said that from Monday, judges have been “ordered/strongly encouraged” not to send to jail defendants on bail so as not to add to the prison population.
The judge said: “We have been told that this is a ‘short-term measure’, but nobody knows what that means.”
The judge added that the “biggest concern” was defendants charged with historic rape or rape of a child under 13 or other sexual assault.
“What am I going to do if a jury finds someone guilty [of rape],” asked the judge, adding: “Do I release that person who is now convicted back into the community, where the victim might see them? What will the victim think?”
The UK’s prison population has been steadily rising since 2020 and as of last Friday, it was 88,016, compared with a total capacity of about 88,670.
HMP Wandsworth is at 170 per cent occupancy, according to August statistics from the Ministry of Justice. HMP Durham is at 171 per cent.
The government estimates these figures will only worsen, with the prison population expected to increase to between 93,100 and 106,300 by 2027.
At his speech to the Conservative Party conference this month, Alex Chalk, the justice secretary, announced plans to rent prison spaces in foreign countries to reduce the pressure.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Our first priority is to keep the public safe from dangerous criminals. That is why we have ended automatic halfway release for serious sexual and violent criminals and increased the average time spent in prison by 3 years – cutting violent crime by nearly 50 per cent since 2010.
“However, the criminal justice system has seen unprecedented growth in the prison population, following the pandemic and barristers’ strike, particularly among those awaiting trial, with 6,000 more prisoners on remand than pre-pandemic.
“The Prison Service has already put in place measures such as rapid deployment cells and doubling up cells to help manage these pressures, and the Government is carrying out the biggest prison building campaign since the Victorian era to build 20,000 new places, making sure we always have the places we need.”