Page last updated at 20:38 GMT, Tuesday, 27 May 2008 21:38 UK

Jail early release plans outlined

Prison doors
The early-release scheme will take place over 14 months

The government has given details its plans to release about 550 inmates in an effort to ease overcrowding.

The non-violent and non-sexual offenders will be automatically freed after half their sentences, instead of waiting until the two-thirds point.

Jails in England and Wales have been told to let out eligible offenders from 9 June and warned that failing to do so would amount to "unlawful detention".

The releases are due to happen over a 14-month period.

'Focus'

The measures were first discussed in a report on the prison system and contained in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, passed by Parliament earlier this month.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw's plan comes as inmate numbers reach a record 83,000 in England and Wales.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "To allow the Parole Board to focus resources on violent and sexual offenders we are implementing the Carter review recommendation on June 9, which will align the release arrangements for certain prisoners.

Releasing prisoners early when they have only served half of their sentence undermines trust in the criminal justice system
Nick Herbert, Conservatives

"This provision, which passed into law through the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 without opposition, will mean this group of prisoners convicted under the 1991 Act serving a sentence of four years or more but less than life will be released at the halfway point of their sentence."

She added: "In order to enhance public protection we are at the same time extending probation supervision to the end of the offender's sentence instead of the three-quarters point."

The spokeswoman also said released prisoners could go back to jail "at any time if their behaviour gives cause for concern".

But Prisons Handbook editor Mark Leech said: "This kind of move undermines the judges who passed their sentences under the legislation that was in force at the time.

"The Probation Service is also under massive pressure and there are serious questions whether it will be able to adequately look after any extra numbers."

For the Conservatives, shadow justice secretary Nick Herbert said: "Releasing prisoners early when they have only served half of their sentence undermines trust in the criminal justice system - even more so when the government has introduced such underhand measures because it has failed to provide adequate prisons capacity.

"Punishments should fit the crime and there should be honesty in sentencing so that every offender serves a minimum sentence handed down in court."

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth said the plan "shows that the penal system is now in a state of grotesque chaos".



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