Page last updated at 21:41 GMT, Thursday, 20 March 2008

Prisoners 'may be released early'

Prison doors
The prison population in England and Wales is near to capacity

More prisoners could be let out early in an effort to reduce overcrowding in jails, Justice Secretary Jack Straw has told the BBC.

He said his priority was "maintaining the confidence of the public", but added that he could not rule out "emergency measures".

Mr Straw also urged judges to hand out fewer short sentences, because they could clog up the system.

The prison population in England and Wales is just 470 below capacity.

The government is promising to provide 2,500 extra places this year.

In an interview with BBC political editor Nick Robinson, Mr Straw said: "Short sentences are a matter for the courts to decide and it has to be for them.

Nobody in my position can rule out emergency measures but, by God, I'm working very, very hard to avoid that because this is all about maintaining the confidence of the public
Jack Straw

"What I am saying, however, is just think about whether community punishments in appropriate circumstances, which can be very tough, and on average can work better than short sentences, should not be used."

When asked about the early-release scheme, he said: "Nobody in my position can rule out emergency measures but, by God, I'm working very, very hard to avoid that because this is all about maintaining the confidence of the public."

Mr Straw, speaking during a visit to Highdown prison in Surrey, said one inmate had told him that life inside was "like a holiday camp" and that prisoners should be locked up without access to luxury items such as televisions.

The minister said that, if he thought that would work, he would consider it.

'Failed'

But he pointed out that among older, longer-serving prisoners, providing education and training was a better policy.

Shadow justice secretary Nick Herbert said: "Prisons are overcrowded because this government has ignored repeated warnings and failed to provide adequate capacity.

Nick Robinson
As quickly as ministers build new prison places, the courts fill them

"Jack Straw argues that community sentences should be used as an alternative, even though he has already admitted that most people who end up in prison go there precisely because these disposals have failed.

"Instead of the overcrowding crisis and emergency measures like the early release of prisoners, we need more jail capacity and fundamental reform of the prison system to rehabilitate offenders and make Britain safer."

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said community-based sentences had proven to be effective.

'Waste of time'

"If you're serving a short sentence [and] you're a petty offender, then you're better off doing enforced community work, really facing up to what you've done and paying back for it.

"Putting people behind bars maybe looks on the surface like a good solution, but actually if they're going to come out and offend again - which for the short sentence people is two-thirds of them, sometimes almost three-quarters - then it's a terrible waste of time."

HAVE YOUR SAY
Just squeeze an extra bed in each prison cell, sure it will be cramped but the inmates are not at Butlins
Kevin, Kings Lynn

Overcrowding in prisons in England and Wales has been a major political issue in recent months.

Capacity has been exceeded despite concerted attempts by the government to reduce pressures by releasing more prisoners and building more cells.

Conservative leader David Cameron has said he would build 5,000 more prison places, while the Liberal Democrats have claimed there was no evidence that having so many inmates was "doing any good".

Mr Straw's comments came on a day when the prison population in England and Wales was revealed to be at 81,906, of which 75 were held in police cells.

Useable operational capacity stands at 82,376.



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