BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 March, 2004, 11:18 GMT
Who's in prison and where else could they go?
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine

The prison population has passed the landmark total of 75,000 for the first time. What offences are these inmates serving time for? And if not prison, then what?

Who is in prison?
Prisons are more crowded than ever before. For the past couple of years, the number behind bars in England and Wales has edged closer and closer to the 75,000 mark, each time setting a new record. On Monday, that figure hit 75,007 - just 200 short of capacity. In addition, Scotland's prison population is at an all-time high of 6,523.

The Home Office has embarked on an ambitious construction programme to make more space in England and Wales for those doing time, spending 2.7bn over 10 years. But jails are filling up as fast as they can build them.

This is not linked to a rise in crime; no more defendants are appearing in court than in the early 1990s, when the prison population was declining as judges doled out more fines and community-based punishments.

What has changed is tougher sentencing. Successive home secretaries, both Conservative and now Labour, have asked the courts to be tough in their sentencing.

But Prisons Minister Paul Goggins blamed the high figure on the use of short sentences for petty offences where other penalties might have been imposed. "What we need to do is make sure that judges and magistrates are making maximum use of community sentences rather than sending people to prison for just a few weeks."

There is increased use of short sentences, some for as little as two weeks for minor offences. In 1990, just under 14,000 adults were given sentences of six months or less. Ten years later that figure had almost trebled.

Two inmates in a cell
Inmates double up on cell space
But longer sentences too are being handed down - the average jail term for burglars has increased from 16 months to 25 months.

Wandsworth prison governor Jim Heavens says shoplifting is a prime example of a crime where alternatives to jail would make a real difference.

"This is an offence that doesn't always carry very high penalties. Ten years ago there were about 129 [in prison]; today you could just about fill Wandsworth with shoplifters."

Doing time

It is a similar story for almost every offence. Today one in 13 defendants receive a custodial sentence, compared with one in 26 a decade ago.

Prisoner behind bars
Numbers have risen by 25,000 in 10 years - previously that took four decades
England and Wales has the EU's highest imprisonment rate at 141 per 100,000 of population
In France it's 93 per 100,000 and in Germany 98
The chances of being imprisoned by a magistrate for driving while disqualified has almost trebled; it is the same with those convicted of theft and handling of stolen goods. Last October there were almost 5,500 prisoners serving life sentences, compared with 3,000 in 1992.

By far the most common offence among male inmates is violence against another person - 12,518 last September, not including remand prisoners - followed by drug offences and burglary (8,843 and 8,443).

Among women, more than one-third are behind bars for drug offences - 1,259 of the 3,396-strong sentenced population last September, among them hundreds of Jamaican "drugs mules". In distant second and third are violence against another person - 547 women - and 487 imprisoned for theft and handling of stolen goods.

Free up space

Few would disagree that custodial sentences are appropriate for those who pose a danger to others

Home detention curfew scheme
An inmate is tagged for the home detention curfew scheme
But for lesser offences, campaigners urge that the criminal justice system should make better use of non-custodial penalties - be it community service, or drug treatment and rehabilitation orders - and early release schemes.

The Home Office is also looking at deporting some foreign nationals held here, and is championing "weekend jails" which allow people to maintain jobs and family links while serving part of their week inside.

Last month, the former prisons chief Martin Narey claimed that jails were overrun with those on short sentences for "petty offences". Figures showed that in 2002, 15,039 motorists went to jail, compared with 10,178 burglars.

Of the drivers, about 4,700 had committed serious offences such as causing death by dangerous driving, or driving while under the influence of drink or drugs. That left 10,269 imprisoned for less serious offences, among them a 62-year-old decorator jailed for two weeks for not paying a disputed speeding fine.

The director of the Prison Reform Trust, Juliet Lyon, says options other than prison are vital to ease overcrowding and to help offenders turn their lives around.

"Do we want to live in a society where more young black men go to prison than to university, where the mentally ill rot in jail instead of getting the treatment they need, drug addicts spend months in and out of custody without intensive help to rebuild their lives, and where most people now leave prison more, not less, likely to offend again?"

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | World | UK | England | Northern Ireland | Scotland | Wales | Politics
Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health | Education
Have Your Say | Magazine | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific