Planned government changes to sentencing will add to pressures on our overcrowded and overstretched prisons, without reducing crime or improving public confidence, a new Prison Reform Trust report warns.

The latest edition of the Bromley Briefing Prison Factfile reveals that, contrary to the impression given in much recent political debate and media coverage, England and Wales have become much tougher in their approach to punishing serious crime over the past few decades, on a scale which exceeds comparable countries or historical precedent.

Writing in the report in a specially commissioned section on life sentences, Professor Ben Crewe and Dr Susie Hulley, from the University of Cambridge, and Dr Serena Wright, from Royal Holloway, University of London, reveal a dramatic increase in the number of people serving sentences that were until recently considered wholly exceptional in their severity.

Between 2000 and 2003, fewer than 100 people a year were given life sentences where the minimum guaranteed period in custody, known as the “tariff” exceeded 15 years. But in the years that followed, this number increased significantly, rising to 249 adults in 2008.

By September 2019, 1,872 life sentence prisoners had tariffs (the guaranteed minimum time inside for punishment) of over 20 years. 880 people had a tariff of more than 25 years, and 291 had a tariff of more than 30 years, excluding 63 people who were serving the state’s most extreme punishment, a whole life tariff—and so very unlikely ever to be released.

The authors’ analysis suggests that the most likely and significant cause of the recent growth in the use of long sentences has been changes in sentencing legislation, particularly the 2003 Criminal Justice Act and subsequent amendments, which bought into effect a significant increase in the minimum sentence for a range of forms of murder.

They find no clear evidence that the recent rise in tariff lengths is linked to changes in the nature or severity of offending itself.

They conclude that the growing numbers of people serving long sentences means that our prisons are likely to remain overcrowded for the foreseeable future, regardless of any changes in sentencing practice for less serious offending or improvements in reconviction rates.

The Bromley Briefings have established themselves as an essential reference publication for anyone concerned about the prison systems in the UK.

The facts and figures compiled for the latest report reveal that our prisons continue to face unprecedented challenges, with conditions which undermine our justice system, and whose consequences blight our communities rather than helping them to thrive.

England and Wales already has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in western Europe, with 140 people held in prison for every 100,000 of our population. We also keep people in prison for far longer than many other countries, with more people serving life sentences here than Germany, Russia, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia combined.

Pressures on prisons set to worsen as government seeks to introduce punitive reforms in its proposed sentencing bill. A government commitment to 10,000 additional prison places is unlikely to meet rising demand given the government’s failure in the past to deliver on prison building promises. A similar 2015 promise to close decrepit and overcrowded Victorian and pre-Victorian jails and replace them with up to 10,000 new prison places have resulted in just 206 additional places being built to date, whilst the commitment to close older prisons has now been abandoned.

Commenting, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said:

“Following almost a decade of deterioration, the government is right to want to restore confidence in our justice system, but so far it is looking in the wrong places. Longer sentences haven’t improved public confidence or safety before, and they won’t now. But they have helped produce a prison system that fails to deliver either safety or rehabilitation. Good soundbites don’t always make good policy - a coherent plan for reform is long overdue.”

Click here to download a copy of the report.