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The self-fulfilling prophesy that's doubled our prison population,
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Monday, 15 February 2010

Gordon Brown set to end early jail release scheme

• PM bids to head off Tory crime attack
• Labour accused of 'cynical' poll ploy

Gordon Brown is set to announce the end of the controversial early release scheme for prisoners before the general election in an attempt to blunt an expected Tory assault on the government's law and order policies.

The Observer can reveal that urgent discussions are under way between No 10, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office in preparation for an announcement within weeks.

Senior government sources say the prime minister may announce the end of the scheme in a major speech on law and order early next month, in which he is also expected to reveal new measures on neighbourhood policing.

Officials said the availability of prison places remained under review on a weekly basis, and that no final decision had been made. But a well-placed source said: "It is our intention to do this before the election if we can."

Last night the Tories, who have been consistent critics of the scheme, accused the government of a cynical manoeuvre aimed at making life difficult for a Conservative government after the election, which is expected on 6 May.

Alan Duncan, the shadow prisons minister, said the scheme should be ended only when conditions in prisons were right, rather than for political reasons. "It is right that the early release scheme should go, but only when the correct measures have been put in place to allow this to happen," he said.

"Labour is seeking deliberately to leave us with a poisoned pill by claiming credit for doing this in March, while knowing that it will leave us, after the election, with a crisis in June."

The early release scheme has been contentious since its introduction in 2007, with critics claiming it has resulted in murders and thousands of other crimes as prisoners have been let out early to relieve pressure on jail places.

Among the most controversial cases was that of Andrew Mournian, 36, who was released 18 days early from a jail sentence for attacking his partner, Amanda Murphy, a mother of two. Five days after his release, he battered her to death.

In 2008, Straw announced a ban on the early release of terrorists, following criticism after a man convicted of smuggling a blueprint for a missile into Britain was released 17 days early. Yassin Nassari had been sentenced to three-and-a-half years' imprisonment.

Under the rules of the programme, prisoners serving sentences of up to four years can be released 18 days before they would previously have been eligible. By the end of 2009, a total of 76,886 prisoners had been released early.

Ministers said the move was necessary to ease the pressure on prisons and would always be ended when it was "practically possible" and as more space became available. But critics have pounced on the timing of the announcement.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), pointed out that the prison population was still extremely high. "They are doing this to outflank the Tories, who have already said they want to scrap it," he said. Fletcher said the scheme had resulted in a reduction of between 2,500 to 3,000 in the prison population, but said Napo opposed it because of the way in which it had been implemented.

"We didn't like it because there was no home circumstances check and no risk assessment; so they just turfed them out," he said. "And perpetrators of domestic violence were being let out and doing it again. Because they are released three weeks early, it wrong-foots all the authorities. At least if we had [the time] to plan we could have put panic buttons in a woman's flat, for instance."

Gary Streeter, a Tory MP on the home affairs select committee, claimed it was a "cynical ploy" by the government to end the measure just before an election. "The early release scheme has been a great source of contention and helped to undermine confidence in the British justice system. Nothing is beyond them in terms of cynical ploys. But I am glad if it is coming to an end; people should serve their full sentence – that is what the public wants," he said.

Charities also opposed the programme. Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said it had made it difficult to plan sentences and prepare prisoners for release. "But, in the scramble to end it, will government be able to capitalise on the success of its intensive community penalties, or is it being forced back on pouring public money down the drain of needless prison building?" she asked. "Until a government of any stripe is prepared to integrate its social and justice policies, and invest accordingly, prisons will lurch from crisis to crisis and one politically expedient idea to the next."

News of the government's planned announcement comes at the end of a week in which the Ministry of Justice said it was dropping plans to build a prison in Barking, east London. A jail to house 1,500 prisoners was to be built on the site of an old Ford factory. But a spokesman said the cost of protecting the site against flooding was too high.

Last year, Jack Straw, the justice secretary, said the government was abandoning proposals for Titan prisons to hold 2,500 prisoners each. Instead, there would be five 1,500-place prisons, including the one in Barking and one at Runwell, in Essex. Officials said the Runwell plans were still on track.

In December, the latest month for which there are statistics, there were 2,187 early releases under the scheme. The Justice Ministry admitted that there had been 57 decisions to recall prisoners, with almost half linked to reoffending. A spokesman said last night: "Ministers have made clear they will end ECL [end of custody licence] as soon as there is sufficient capacity to do so; we are working extremely hard to build new places, with the fastest ever creation of prison spaces. We are keeping under review how long ECL remains in place in light of new prison capacity coming on stream.",
Sunday 14 February 2010
Toby Helm and Anushka Asthana

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