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An explosion in the use of indeterminate sentences and the increased use of long determinate sentences are key drivers behind the near doubling of prison numbers in the past two decades. The latest edition of the Bromley Briefing Prison Factfile, published today (30 November) by the Prison Reform Trust, reveals the cost of our addiction to imprisonment in wasted time, money and lives.

The prison population in England and Wales has soared by over 40,000 since 1993, and currently stands at 85,163. England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe at 148 per 100,000 of the population. This compares to an imprisonment rate of 100 per 100,000 in France and 78 per 100,000 in Germany. At an average annual cost per place of £36,237, the rise in the prison population since 1993 represents an estimated additional cost of £1.22bn annually.

The latest prison population projection figures published last week by the Ministry of Justice estimate that the prison population in England and Wales will increase to 86,700 by June 2016. By March 2021 (the end of the projection period) it is estimated to be 89,900.

Recent changes to prison policy and legislation—including the impact of mandatory year long supervision for short sentenced prisons, mandatory minimum custodial sentences for a second offence of knife possession, and restrictions on the use of release on temporary licence—are projected to place an upward pressure of the prison population. Changes in the offender case mix, resulting in more serious cases and historic coming before the courts, are also predicted to have an impact.

The projected increase in the prison population comes at a time when the Ministry of Justice is having to reduce its running costs by £600m by 2019-20, according to the requirements of last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review. The government plans to build nine new prisons (five over the current spending review period) and close inner city jails, including the women’s prison Holloway. But without a concerted effort to reduce the size of the prison population, it is unclear how these savings will be accrued. £600m is what it costs to keep 30 medium to large prisons afloat each year. 

In its submission to the Spending Review, the Prison Reform Trust set out how the prison population could safely be halved. This would mean a multi-faceted programme, focused on sentencing reform, incorporating new approaches both to divert people from custody in the first place and to ensure that former prisoners did not return to custody once released. The rapid and sustained fall in the number of children sent to prison—an over 60% reduction in the last seven years together with a fall in youth crime—shows that change can be achieved.

The Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that two-thirds of the rise in the prison population between 1993 and 2012 has been driven by greater use of long custodial sentences. The average prison sentence is now nearly four months longer than 20 years ago at 15.9 months. However, this average hides the large numbers of people spending significantly longer behind bars. The use of sentences of more than ten years has nearly tripled since 2005 alone, and accounts for around 14% of the people in prison serving a sentence.

The use of indeterminate sentences has also risen dramatically. The proportion of the sentenced prison population serving a life or indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP) has almost doubled since 1993 from 9% to 17% in 2014.

There are more than three times as many people in prison serving an indeterminate sentence in England and Wales as France, Germany and Italy combined—many of whom have no idea when, or if, they may be released.

Despite its abolition in 2012, the effects of the disastrous IPP sentence continue to be felt by the 4,614 people still in prison, three-quarters of whom have already served their tariff, the minimum time they must spend in prison. A Parole Board facing significant resource pressures, and an increasing backlog of cases, means that many continue to be held years beyond what was anticipated, with little or no prospect of imminent release.

People serving mandatory life sentences are spending more of their sentence in prison. On average they spend 17 years in custody, up from 13 years in 2001. Judges are also imposing longer tariff periods. The average minimum term imposed for murder rose from 12.5 years in 2003 to 21 years in 2013.

Peter Dawson, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust and former prison governor said:

“Increasing sentence lengths has been a comfort blanket for every government of the last 20 years. However the uncomfortable truth is that most of that expensive additional prison time is both unnecessary and wasted, with successive budget cuts leading many in prison to spend long, pointless, hours behind cell doors with predictably poor results."

Evidence suggests that sentence inflation at the top end has had an impact on sentencing in other areas, with greater use of mandatory penalties and many people going to prison for offences that would have previously attracted a community sentence. Since 2006, the use of community sentences has nearly halved despite their being cheaper and more effective than a short prison sentence at reducing reoffending.

The briefing outlines how three years of drastic cuts to prison budgets have resulted in diminished regimes and staffing levels. Violence and disorder have risen sharply, suicides continue to rise while levels of purposeful activity were judged unacceptable in three-quarters of prisons inspected. Poor standards behind bars are reflected in poor outcomes on release with almost half of all people reoffending within one year of leaving prison.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“Following last week’s Spending Review and now facing an unaffordable projected prison population, the justice secretary has the opportunity to meet his spending commitments without compromising either public safety or the long running fall in crime. Pressure on the system could be relieved by revising the sentencing framework, curbing ever lengthening sentence lengths and mandatory penalties, dealing with the dragnet of indeterminate sentences and the use of joint enterprise, getting a grip on unnecessary use of remand and recall, and dealing case by case with the forgotten thousands of prisoners still held long beyond terms set by courts. Further steps can and must be made in diverting addicts and people with mental health needs into treatment.”