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Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK
'Harsh sentencing' packs prisons
Prison interior
Could overcrowding lead to riots?
Tough talk from UK Home Secretary David Blunkett has encouraged magistrates to fill our prisons to breaking point with petty criminals, a BBC Radio 4 programme has found.

Britain's prisons are becoming dangerously overcrowded thanks to political pressure to put petty offenders behind bars, say campaigners.

The Howard League for Penal Reform believes the Home Secretary David Blunkett's tough speeches on law and order have swiftly trickled through the justice system and encouraged many magistrates to dish out tougher sentences.

Having charted weekly rises in jail sentences against statements made by Mr Blunkett, the Howard League's Claire McCarthy says his calls for a strong response to street crime at the start of the year saw the prison population rocket by up to 600 a week.


We've reached the conclusion that we should remove from magistrates the power to send people to prison

Mike Newell, Prison Governors Association

"Instead of reminding people that actually we have some of the lowest crime rates we've had in a decade, he sent out a fear of crime. There was an implied threat to sack the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police if he didn't get street crime under control."

The unprecedented rise in prison numbers only began to tail off after Mr Blunkett changed tack, says Ms McCarthy.

'Emotive language'

In late March, Mr Blunkett made a speech defending the need for early prison releases to reduce the pressure on the prison system.

"In the two or three weeks following, the prison population remained basically very steady and the sharp increases were a thing of the past."

However, Ms McCarthy says the tougher talk returned in April, with a corresponding impact on the prison population.

"David Blunkett was using very emotive language about crime - using words like hooligan, thug and bail bandit.

Riots risk

"He talked of the need to lock up 10, 11, 12-year-olds and increase the number of children remanded in custody before their trial."

In the weeks after these announcements the prison population increased by up to 500 inmates a week, according to the Howard League.

Officer in riot gear at  Lowmoss prison
Overcrowded prisons risk rioting
Such influxes add to prison tensions, increasing the risk of rioting. Some prison governors believe the performance of lay magistrates is partly responsible for their overcrowding problems.

The powers of the magistrate must be curbed, says Mike Newell, president of the Prison Governors Association and governor of Durham Prison.

"We've reached the conclusion that we should remove from magistrates the power to send people to prison. They should only deal with community sentences."

Mr Newell says only Crown Courts should be allowed to hand down custodial sentences.

Sentencing disparities

Some magistrates admit they take a lead from speeches on law and order made by the Home Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice.

Harry Mawdsley of the Magistrates Association denied a steep rise in custodial sentences issued by the magistrates. But he admitted "local sentencing cultures" may exist in parts of the country with high crime rates.

Official figures show that across a range of crimes a defendant in Greenwich and Woolwich has a far higher chance of being sent to prison than one in Reading.

File On 4's investigation of the prison crisis was broadcast at 2000 BST on Tuesday 18 June on BBC Radio 4, or click here to hear it on the

website.

Click here to visit the File on 4 website
See also:

11 Jun 02 | UK Politics
29 May 02 | UK Politics
24 May 02 | England
04 Feb 02 | UK Politics
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