Page last updated at 13:59 GMT, Friday, 30 January 2009

Record number of inmates freed

Prison cell
The early release scheme was introduced to ease overcrowding

A record number of prisoners have been released early to ease prison overcrowding, new figures have shown.

The Ministry of Justice said 2,795 criminals in England and Wales were freed up to 18 days before the half-way point of their sentence in December.

It is the highest monthly total since the controversial End of Custody Licence was introduced last June.

An MoJ spokesman said the government was working "extremely hard" to create extra prison capacity.

So far 47,515 inmates have been let out early under the End of Custody Licence programme.

Violent crime has nearly doubled and ministers have resorted to letting serious offenders out early
Conservative justice spokesman Dominic Grieve

They include nearly 10,000 violent offenders and more than 4,200 burglars.

More than 1,500 criminals let out have been recalled to prison for breaching the terms of their release, and one in 10 of those recalled to custody is still on the run.

Last year it was reported that three alleged murders had been carried out by early release criminals.

Official predictions of release numbers from last year have estimated more than 200,000 criminals could be let out early in the next seven years.

The MoJ spokesman said: "The Justice Secretary has said that we will end the End of Custody Licence when there is sufficient prison capacity to safely do so.

"We are working extremely hard to produce that space, with the fastest ever creation of prison places."

He added that prisoners who present the "highest risk" to the public were excluded from the early release scheme.

Conservative justice spokesman Dominic Grieve said: "As Chancellor, Gordon Brown vetoed extra prison places.

"Now the consequences are plain to see. Violent crime has nearly doubled and ministers have resorted to letting serious offenders out early."

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth said: "Ministers must tackle reoffending and move drug addicts and the mentally ill into more appropriate secure accommodation."

Foreign nationals

Separate MoJ figures released Friday show 82,023 people were being held in prison in England and Wales as of December 2008 - a 2% rise on the same period in 2007.

Of those, 11,283 - just under 15% - were foreign nationals held in jail or immigration removal centres.

The number of men in prison increased by 3% to 77,435 and number of women decreased 3% to 4,201.

The number of remand prisoners - those either awaiting trial or sentence - grew by 6% compared with December 2007.

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