Labour has 'no choice' but to free prisoners who've served 40% of sentence, charity says

The Howard League for Penal Reform tells Yahoo News how the prison system has been left to 'crumble' and that many people 'shouldn't be there'.

File photo dated 22/08/18 a general view of HMP Pentonville, north London. The Home Secretary has said there is no
The UK's prison system has been left to 'crumble' over many years, the head of the Howard League for Penal Reform has said. (Alamy)

The new Labour government has "no choice" but to release some offenders who have served 40% of their sentences as prisons are too full and in a state of disarray, a penal reform charity has told Yahoo News.

Ministers are reported to be discussing this plan in a bid to address overcrowding in jails, with home secretary Yvette Cooper blaming the Conservative Party for leaving behind a "legacy" of "chaos".

Cooper has said there is no "quick fix" to this problem, but with prison governors and union leaders warning for months that jails are dangerously close to capacity, Labour may decide to go ahead with the proposed move, which it is thought could lead to thousands of prisoners being released early. Whitehall sources have reportedly played down claims the figure could be as high as 40,000 prisoners.

Andrea Coomber, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "Having inherited such a mess, they're having to take such drastic action... the whole system is about to collapse."

She says it is "not entirely the fault" of the previous Conservative government, as sentencing reforms introduced under Tony Blair's Labour government saw the length of sentences increase significantly.

However, Coomber says Rishi Sunak was "unwilling" to address the issue "when the tea leaves are making it very clear that the prisons were soon going to be full".

The previous government had "tried lots of desperate things", she adds, from modular rapid deployment cells to a proposal to rent prison space abroad, and an early release scheme currently in operation, all of which Coomber describes as "stop gap" measures.

On the new plan purportedly being considered by Labour, she said: "I'm sure they wouldn't be choosing to do this in their first week, but they do have no choice."

Currently, most prisoners on "determinate sentences", meaning one with a fixed end date, will serve half of their sentence in custody and the rest on licence, although they could be called back to prison if they breach their conditions.

Labour is considering bringing this down to between 40% and 43%, according to the Telegraph. Offenders subject to parole board decisions, including those jailed for violent and sexual offences, would be excluded from the plan.

Coomber says this will bring down the prison population "pretty swiftly" and give prisons the "headroom" they need to invest in jails that have been left in a "terrible" condition, including HMP Wandsworth, Brixton, Exeter and Bristol.

"I think it shows that there's been a massive lack of strategy from successive governments about how to deal with people who break the law," she adds, arguing that more emphasis is needed on prevention and rehabilitation.

Coomber pointed to the Netherlands, whose prison population per capita is significantly lower than the UK's, as a better model to follow, as many prisoners whose offences are related to mental health or drugs and alcohol receive the treatment they need.

"They treat the causes of their offending in the community so they don't go on to commit more crime," she adds. "Our prisons are definitely punishing places. We're good at punishing people. But we don't rehabilitate them. Our prisons have a lot of people in them that don't need to be there."

Coomber added that by taking these people out of the prison system, more capacity would be freed up for more dangerous individuals who "need to be taken out of society for a period of time".

Sir Keir Starmer said during his first press conference as prime minister that far too many people find themselves back in prison "relatively" quickly after their release. He also said that early interventions to stop young people from committing knife crime is a priority of his new cabinet.

While it is not clear exactly how the government is going to do this, Coomber says that based on her conversations with the Labour Party over the past few years, "they understand that there's a real problem with probation".

"I think having James Timpson as the prisons minister will allow them to hit the ground running in terms of understanding what a lot of prisons are like," she adds.

Timpson is CEO of the Timpson shoe repair and key fixing business, which is one of the UK's biggest employers of ex-offenders. More than one in 10 of his employees are former prisoners, according to the Charity Times.

In a resurfaced interview with Channel 4 from earlier this year, he said the UK is “addicted to sentencing and punishment” and that a lot of people are in prison who "shouldn't be there".

A 2023 report by the Centre for Mental Health found that nine in 10 people in prison had at least one mental health or substance misuse need.

The charity carried out a survey of three-quarters of prisons and young offenders institutions in England and found more than 7,700 people were receiving some form of mental health service while in custody.

This equates to one prisoner in seven getting support from mental health services, which rises to more than one in four among women in custody.

It also found that most prisons do not employ someone with mental health expertise to carry out screening at reception, meaning many people’s needs may be missed when they arrive in prison.

A government report from 2022 found that there were 43,255 adults in alcohol and drug treatment in prisons and secure settings between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021.

A Ministry of Justice bulletin from February this year predicted the prison population of England and Wales to increase to between 94,600 and 114,800 by March 2028, with a central estimate of 105,800.

The government department put this down to a few reasons, including police charging more people, more prosecutions, outstanding caseloads in Crown Courts and changes in sentencing policy to keep the most serious offenders imprisoned for longer – although with so many variables, the figures should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Ministry of Justice figures, from 5 July, put the male prison population at 83,796 compared to 3,657 in female prisons. That brings the total to 87,453, which is very close to the current operational capacity of 88,864.

A House of Commons research briefing, published on 8 July, says that as of March 2024, there were 87,900 serving prisoners in England and Wales. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, which collect their data separately from the MoJ, the numbers were 8,000 and 1,900, respectively.

The briefing says that up until 2015, the prison population had been generally increasing in size, with the sharpest increases happening in the mid-1990s and the 2000s. "After that it flattened off, even falling in Scotland and Northern Ireland prior to the pandemic", it adds.

Prison numbers across the UK fell during the COVID-19 pandemic, the briefing says, with the largest decline between February and June 2020, when the overall prison population fell by 5,500, or 6%, but the figures have since "steadily grown" to pre-pandemic levels.