Britain to spare minor offenders jail in effort to ease prison overcrowding

LONDON (Reuters) – Offenders in England and Wales who are given jail sentences of less than a year will usually see those sentences suspended and do community service instead, Britain’s justice minister said on Monday, in an effort to ease prison overcrowding.

The prison population in England and Wales has doubled in the last 30 years as a result of longer criminal sentences and a tougher approach to violent and drug-related crime.

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said the government’s decision to jail people convicted of serious crimes for longer would necessitate a change of approach in other areas to make more space in prisons.

“We will legislate for a presumption that custodial sentences of less than 12 months in prison will be suspended and offenders will be punished in the community,” Chalk told lawmakers.

Chalk also said that some less serious offenders could be moved out of prison on to licence up to 18 days before their automatic release date, and the use of recall to prison for offenders on release who infringe the terms of their licence would be reviewed.

He also said he would look to remove more foreign prisoners by deploying more caseworkers and seeking new prisoner transfer deals with other countries.

As of Friday, the prison population of England and Wales stood at a record high of 88,225, up 8% from a year earlier, leaving a usable capacity of 557 places, official figures show.

About three in every five prisons were overcrowded as of June this year, meaning they held more inmates than they can provide with a decent standard of accommodation.

Chalk repeated a previous commitment to increase prison capacity by 20,000 places by the mid-2020s by refurbishing old centres and building new ones, at a cost of 4 billion pounds ($4.88 billion).

($1 = 0.8200 pound)

(Reporting by Alistair Smout and Sachin Ravikumar; Editing by Bill Berkrot)