Page last updated at 13:42 GMT, Monday, 31 March 2008 14:42 UK

Two sex offenders released early

Prison cell
The early release scheme was introduced to ease overcrowding

Two men convicted of sex offences have been released early under the scheme to reduce jail overcrowding.

The scheme allows prisoners out up to 18 days before they would normally be eligible for release.

It does not cover most sex offenders - but the Ministry of Justice said the men's offences were minor and they were not on the sex offenders' register.

The Tories called for the scheme to be scrapped immediately and demanded a Commons statement on the issue.

"Ministers said that 25,500 prisoners would be released this year. In fact the rate of release is far higher and the true figure is likely to be over 30,000," said shadow justice secretary Nick Herbert.

He went on: "A government which releases 30,000 criminals early because it has failed to provide enough prison places shows how far it has lost touch with public concern about crime."

Last week it emerged that two men convicted of terrorism offences were released early under the same rules.

'Minor' offences

The special scheme, known as End of Custody Licence (ECL), came into force last summer to ease pressure on prisons running at near maximum capacity.

Under the rules, prisoners who would normally be approaching the date where they would be eligible for parole, are allowed to leave prison up to 18 days early.

Offenders can only be considered for release if they are sentenced to terms of between four weeks and four years.

Registered sex offenders, or people convicted of serious violent offences, are among those not allowed to benefit from the provisions.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said the two male sex offenders had been serving sentences of less than six months for "minor sexual offences".

One was convicted of outraging public decency and the other for sexual activity in a public place.

The MoJ said neither of the offenders had been required to join the sex offenders' register on their release.

Latest figures

In total, seven sex offenders have been freed early since ECL began last June.

The latest figures show that 2,458 prisoners were released early in February, bringing the total since ECL began last June to 21,041.

Among those released early since ECL started were almost 4000 prisoners serving sentences for violence, almost 2,000 for burglary and 4,800 for theft. The overwhelming majority had been serving sentences of less than six months.

On Friday Justice Secretary Jack Straw changed the rules to prevent the early release of anyone convicted of a terrorism offence after two men were released early from their sentences.

In the first case, an 18-year-old man was released from a young offenders' institution after a sentence for possession of articles which could be used for terrorism. The second case involved a man jailed for three and a half years for possession of a rocket blueprint.

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