Page last updated at 00:13 GMT, Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Prisoner early release scheme to be halted by April

Prison doors
The prison population in England and Wales is currently at just under 84,000

The government is to halt the prisoner early release scheme designed to ease jail overcrowding in England and Wales.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw told the House of Commons the scheme would be phased out from 12 March and see the the last inmates freed on 9 April.

Prison chiefs began using the scheme in June 2007 amid rising prisoner numbers.

Since then, about 80,000 inmates serving up to four years for a range of less serious offences have been freed early.

Some have been released up to 18 days before the halfway point of their sentence.

The latest figures show that 76,886 prisoners were released under the End of Custody Licence (ECL) scheme by the end of December last year - with the figure rising by approximately 2,000 a year.

Of those who were released, the Ministry of Justice says that 2,522 were recalled for breaching the terms of their licence, representing 3% of all those in the scheme.

A further 1,574 offences were committed by offenders who had been released under the scheme.

Spare capacity

Among those was Andrew Mournian who murdered his girlfriend Amanda Murphy in 2007 five days after being released. He had been sentenced to 20 weeks for assaulting the mother-of-two but was released 18 days early.

And in 2008, the government had to make changes to the scheme after two men convicted of terrorism were let out of jail early to ease prison overcrowding.

Mr Straw told MPs that there were now enough spare places in the prison system to mean it was no longer necessary to consider any prisoners for the scheme.

Jack Straw:"ECL was explicitly introduced as a temporary measure”

As of last Friday there were 83,820 inmates in jail and approximately 2,500 spare beds.

On the weekend before the scheme was introduced in June 2007, there were 80,951 people in jail, a further 400 in emergency police cells - and barely 100 beds available across the entire prison system.

Mr Straw told MPs that prisoners who had been given a formal release date up to and including 9 April would be released and then the scheme would end.

He said: "Predicting the prison population and matching places to meet demand has always been difficult and inevitably imprecise.

"I can certainly recall early release schemes on three separate occasions - in 1984, 1987 and 1991 - when the government of the day faced crises in handling pressures upon the prison population.

"ECL was explicitly introduced as a temporary measure. I have always said that we would end it as soon as we could.

"I have always recognised that, while necessary as a temporary measure, it was inherently unsatisfactory and potentially damaging to public confidence in justice - confidence which is otherwise high, particularly in the light of falling crime."

Only available to prisoners serving between four weeks and four years
Sex offenders subjected to registration excluded
Serious violent offenders excluded
Foreign national prisoners excluded

Mr Straw said the prison service was on track to have 96,000 spaces available by 2014 because of the current building programme.

Shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve said the scheme had been "reckless".

"The introduction of the early release scheme was a direct result of this prime minister's failure," he said.

"As chancellor, he choked funding for the prison cells the home secretary had asked for, the capacity required to meet official projections for the prison population.

"The consequences of that failure have been stark. Eighty thousand criminals let out of jail early, including 15,000 violent offenders and two terrorists.

"Those released went on to commit 1,500 crimes, including several rape and murder offences."

'Gaping hole'

Mr Grieve attacked the Ministry of Justice for shelving some prison building plans.

He said the cancellation of prisons in Essex and North Wales had left a "gaping hole" in the figures and that the ministry's own projections showed that it would again reach capacity by July 2011.

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth said he welcomed the announcement, but added: "The real scandal is not just the offenders released early who commit more crimes - it is the sky-high levels of re-offending across the board.

"The system is not working and today's announcement does nothing to address that. Prison should be reserved for serious and violent offenders.

"If the government were not so obsessed with filling our prisons with people who should not be there, such as drug addicts and the mentally ill, they would not be forced to let out dangerous criminals before they have served their sentence."

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