updated on 24 October 2023
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The senior presiding judge for England and Wales, Lord Justice Edis, has delayed the sentencing of convicted criminals on bail due to overpopulation in prisons. As a longer term solution, the government plans to send prisoners overseas and build more prisons.
England and Wales’ prisons have almost reached full capacity, with the expected population set to pass 100,000 by 2025. The ruling to delay sentencing has led to concerns about convicted criminals currently on bail (including burglars and rapists) walking free, as reported in The Times. Lord Justice Edis assured that those convicted of serious crimes will be held in cells at the magistrates’ court.
Not only is the prison population rising, but there’s also a large backlog of cases. In an effort to reduce the backlog from 63,000 to 53,000 by March 2025, justice ministers have allowed for unlimited judicial sitting days. This means that more cases will be heard and more offenders convicted, further increasing the prison population.
Richard Miller, a senior policy official at the Law Society, said the “crisis” is “a consequence of the government’s approach to justice including over a decade of underfunding of our criminal justice system, which also sees chronic shortages of judges and lawyers, huge backlogs of cases and crumbling courts”.
Lord Justice Edis emphasised that the decision to delay sentencing is a “short-term measure”, with the government suggesting other long-term solutions. At the Conversative party conference earlier this month, Alex Chalk KC, justice secretary, announced a new proposal to send prisoners overseas. Previously, both Norway and Belgium have housed British prisoners. The government is currently in talks with Estonia about renting cells to the UK and Chalk noted that legislation to transfer prisoners overseas will be included in the King’s Speech on 7 November 2023.
Building new prisons is another possible solution. In 2019, building 20,000 new prisons by the mid-2020s was a key part of the Conservative manifesto. This pledge was since dropped but was emphasised by the Ministry of Justice in a recent statement: "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."
Meanwhile, the Labour party criticised the Conservatives’ handling of the situation with Labour shadow justice minister Shabana Mahmood saying, “It is an absolutely damning indictment of the state of our prisons that this Tory government is unable to either get criminals locked up or keep them there”.