New government to address prison crisis

updated on 09 July 2024

Reading time: three minutes

Following Labour’s landslide general election victory, the UK’s new Prime Minister Keir Starmer has promised reforms to improve the criminal justice system amid a critical prison crisis.

In his inaugural press conference, Starmer said that the number of people who are released from prison but return soon after is a “massive problem” and requires immediate action before adding that there are “too many prisoners” and “not enough prisons”.  

Overcrowded prisons now strain under the weight of their own walls as England and Wales grapple with a record prison population of 87,453, up 13% in the past three years. This is a small step away from the reported ‘useable operational capacity’ of 88,864, leading to warnings that space could run out imminently.

Prior to the election, Starmer had accused the Conservative government of creating a prisons crisis by not building enough new prisons. While he’s aware that he “can’t build a prison within 24 hours”, as part of his plans to address the overcrowding issue, he’s proposed to create 20,000 additional prison places by enabling ministers to override local councils when making planning decisions. On top of this, the new Labour government has confirmed its plans to keep in place the early release scheme, allowing some lower-level offenders to be released up to 70 days early. It’s expected that the prime minister will implement emergency measures this week to release criminals less than halfway through their sentence. A review of sentencing policies has also been promised.

Another early priority for the government is to intervene and prevent young people from committing knife crime by setting up a network of ‘youth hubs’. Drawing from his experience as a former lawyer, Starmer said: “I’ve […] watched people processed through the system on an escalator to go into prison. I’ve often reflected that many of them could have been taken out of that system earlier if they’d had support.”

James Timpson has also been appointed as prisons minister at the Ministry of Justice in an effort to improve the criminal justice system. Timpson has invested “a huge amount” over the years into rehabilitating offenders as CEO of Timpson Group. Prior to being appointed as prisons minister, he was chair of the UK charity Prison Reform Trust, an organisation dedicated to reducing imprisonment rates and improving conditions for inmates and their families.

Meanwhile, former barrister Shabana Mahmood, the new justice secretary, has received a set of immediate and medium-term options aimed at alleviating the strain on prisons. Among the options presented is to reduce the automatic release threshold for prisoners to less than 50% of their sentence. The justice secretary has been urged by officials to make a decision this week to prevent prisons from reaching full capacity before 1 August 2024.

The Law Society congratulated Starmer on his election victory and said that, as a legal practitioner, he understands “first-hand the issues that our justice system is facing”. President of the Law Society, Nick Emmerson, marked the victory as a “new chapter for the UK” and looks “forward to working with the new government to strengthen our justice system”.

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