Prison reforms will cut reoffending and put worst offenders behind bars for longer

A fundamental shake-up of the justice system that takes dangerous offenders off the streets for longer while rehabilitating lower risk offenders has been outlined today by Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk

  • Rapists to stay locked up for all of their sentences, building on work to keep the most dangerous offenders in prison for longer
  • Reforms will also see lowest risk and first-time offenders given a chance to turn themselves away from a life of crime
  • Lord Chancellor outlines vision for long-term changes to prisons and justice to keep public safer from crime

The Lord Chancellor confirmed plans to bring forward legislation to keep rapists, as well as the most serious sexual offenders, behind bars for the entirety of their sentences, making sure perpetrators of this awful crime do not walk out of prison before the last day of their custodial term.  

This builds on action already taken by the government to keep those who pose the greatest danger to society locked up and off our streets, including ending the automatic halfway release for serious sexual and violent offenders and making whole life sentences the default sentence for the most heinous types of murder. 

The Lord Chancellor told the Commons that in order for the government to continue to put the worst offenders away for longer, we must think again about how we make the best use of our prisons and ensure there are always enough places to lock up dangerous criminals. These reforms must include giving the lowest risk offenders the greatest chance to turn their lives around.  

The Lord Chancellor set how despite the overall reoffending rates falling by almost a quarter since 2010, the public are being failed by short prison sentences that result in some of the lowest risk offenders getting trapped in a revolving prison door. He pointed to the fact these short-term sentences often lead to offenders who could otherwise be turned away from crime losing their jobs and family ties, making them more likely to reoffend. 

He noted that reoffending rates are far higher for offenders in prison for under 12 months, and higher again for those in for under six months. While the overall reoffending rate is 25 percent, the rate for people who spend fewer than 12 months in prison is over 50 percent. This goes up to 58% for those who serve sentences of six months of less.  

This is also far higher than the 23% for a suspended sentence order with requirements, 38% without requirements, or 34% for those given a community order. 

In order to end the merry-go-round of reoffending the government will legislate that there should be a presumption against prison sentences of less than 12 months. Instead of going to prison these offenders can be punished in the community, repaying their debt to society by cleaning up our neighbourhoods and scrubbing graffiti off walls. By remaining in the community these offenders will also be able to better access the drug rehab, mental healthcare and other support that properly addresses the root causes of their offending.  

The Lord Chancellor also announced a doubling of the number of GPS tags available to the courts to help them manage offenders in the community. This technology can help make sure offenders go to work and have their freedom curtailed by monitoring with tough curfews of 7am to 7pm on weekdays and up to 20 hours a day on weekends. 

Judges and magistrates will still be able to send offenders to prison for less than 12 months if deemed appropriate, such as prolific repeat offenders, as well as anyone unwilling to obey the strict requirements of the sentence – such as breaking curfews, cutting off a GPS tag or breaching a court order to clean up the neighbourhoods they’ve damaged.   

During his statement, the Justice Secretary also updated Parliament on our plans to build enough prison places for future demand. He announced up to £400m for more prison places, enough to buy 800 new rapid deployment cells, and 35,000 cells will be refurbished across the estate to bring them up to modern standards. 

He also set out new plans for £30m of funding to allow the Prison Service to quickly identify and purchase land in 2024 for new prisons.  

This is on top of the government’s commitment to build 20,000 new prison places, the biggest expansion in 100 years. Over 5,500 of these are already built, with a further 3,000 expected to be ready in the next two years.  

To help manage the prison population further a new Annual Report will be laid in Parliament setting out how the demands on prison places and how they will be met.    

Further reforms that were outlined today include:  

  • Stepping up work to remove thousands of foreign prisoners by deporting them earlier and agreeing more transfer agreements with other countries
  • Legislating to allow prisoners to be held in overseas prisons
  • Reviewing the incentives around early guilty pleas, to save the courts time and spare victims the ordeal of giving evidence in court
  • Looking at options to tackle the injustice of the now abolished Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence and how the licence period could be reduced to restore greater proportionality to the IPP sentence

The Lord Chancellor also acknowledged how the pandemic, combined with last year’s barristers’ strike, had impacted the justice system and put pressure on our prison estate. This has contributed to around 6,000 more prisoners being held on remand in prison than before the pandemic.  

Despite bringing online 100 places per week this year – the fastest living in memory – to keep up with this unprecedented demand, pressure remains.  

The Lord Chancellor confirmed that in order make sure we have the prison places we need to lock up the most dangerous offenders and to ensure safety in the prison estate, he has agreed to use an existing power to allow the prison service to move some less serious offenders on to licence a few days before their automatic release point.

The Prison Service will exclude offenders who do not meet strict criteria. Offenders will be supervised by the probation service and placed under strict licence conditions – which may include GPS tags and curfews. Breach of these conditions could lead to the offender being instantly recalled to prison for the entire second half of their sentence. 

It will be limited to lower-level offenders and will not apply to anyone convicted of sexual or terrorist offences or serious violent offences.  

Every single offender will be placed under strict licence conditions which provide a step-down from custody to living in the community. This may include having to live at an address approved by their probation officer, attending appointments, not entering certain areas such as postcodes and being made to wear an electronic tag where needed to manage them safely. Breach of these conditions could lead to the offender being recalled to custody – not just for 18 days, but the remainder of their sentence. 

Those serving a sentence for any kind of sexual offence, terror offence or where the sentence is longer than four years for a serious violent offence will automatically be ruled out.  

Such schemes have operated recently in France, Belgium, Ireland and California either due to overcrowding or due to the risk the Covid-19 pandemic presented to prisoners.  

The package of reforms involves legislation being introduced and further details will be announced when parliamentary time allows.

Ministry of Justice