Publication Justice 20 March, 2020

Reducing the prison population: Extending Home Detention Curfew and scrapping short sentences

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This Reform Perspectives assesses current Government policy to reduce overcrowding, why, while welcome, argues it is insufficient, and outlines what further changes should be made to immediately reduce the prison population.

The prison system is severely overcrowded and has been for 15 years, with 70 per cent of prisons holding more people than they were designed to.

In the context of the present COVID-19 threat, the challenges facing the prison estate pose new and unprecedented problems. A combination of overcrowded and insanitary conditions and poor-quality healthcare in prisons means COVID-19 poses an increased risk to the system.

Extending Home Detention Curfew

The Government is said to be looking at reintroducing aborted legislation to extend Home Detention Curfews (HDC). HDCs allow prisoners to be released before their scheduled release date subject to strict monitoring conditions, including electronically monitored curfews.

The impact assessment published by the Ministry of Justice in July 2019 argues that this would give people leaving prison more time to prepare for resettlement and reduce the prison population by around 500.

Emergency measures

While welcome, the impact of the proposed changes to HDC on the prison estate are limited. A population reduction of 500 is not nearly enough to relieve the pressure.

This Reform Perspectives argues that the Government should consider using emergency legislation to transfer all prisoners currently serving a sentence of less than six months into the HDC population, and to ban sentencers from passing a sentence of six months or less.

Violent, weapons and sexual offenders should be exempt from this ban – but the Government should consider that such a short period in custody leaves little time to do meaningful work with prisoners to address their behaviour.

These measures could have a more significant impact on reducing the prison population and rebalance spending in favour of community punishments that may reduce reoffending.

Reducing the use of prison sentences also has significant cost benefits. Reform research has shown that annually, a community sentence costs just over a tenth of the cost of imprisonment to deliver.

Transferring short sentence prisoners to HDC

Accommodation is a prerequisite of HDC, and as many as one in four prisoners on these sentences are released homeless.

The Bail, Accommodation and Support Service seeks to secure accommodation for people eligible for HDC but with no fixed abode. A sizeable increase in the HDC population could overwhelm this service, so some prisoners may be unable to enter the HDC population.

Securing accommodation for exoffenders should be a priority for this Government, increasing their chances of leading more stable lives in the community.

Banning sentences of six months or less

Transferring prisoners currently serving short sentences to HDC would have an immediate impact, but Government must also act to reduce the flow of new prisoners.

Banning the future use of sentences of six months or less would have a significant effect on the population. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has estimated that a ban would reduce the prison population by 1,300 people within 12 months.

Sentencers should also be more informed about community alternatives to custody with better training and the increased use of pre-sentence reporting.

Implementing the increased use of HDCs and community sentences

A full ban on short sentences would mean a significant increase in the use of community sentences, thereby increasing the caseloads for probation and associated services.

Probation services would need to be resourced to manage this increase.