Limit Jail Sentences, Urges Reid

Judges and magistrates are being asked to jail only the most dangerous and persistent criminals. The home secretary and law chiefs have sent them a letter as the number of inmates in England and Wales hovers around the jail capacity of 80,000.

The government said the move was necessary while plans to create 8,000 more prison places go ahead. It comes as the BBC learns Norwich jail is to reopen a wing declared “unfit” by inspectors because of cell shortages.

Up to 150 men are due back in A wing, days after it closed for refurbishment. The developments at Norwich Prison are a sign of how serious the overcrowding crisis has become, said BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw. With prisoner numbers back to pre-Christmas levels, the dilapidated wing is to be re-occupied.

The government will have 350 extra places in a prison on Merseyside in the spring, but its 8,000 new places will not all be ready for four years, with funding and sites yet to be fully approved.

Meanwhile officials will advise Mr Reid if the prison population continues to increase he may have no alternative but to order the release of inmates nearing the end of their sentences, our correspondent said.

The letter from Mr Reid, Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer and Attorney General Lord Goldsmith said courts should not be “squandering taxpayers’ money to monitor non-dangerous and less serious offenders.”

Mr Reid said: “The public have a right to expect protection from violent and dangerous offenders. Prisons are an expensive resource that should be used to protect the public and to rehabilitate inmates and stop them reoffending.”

A Home Office spokesman said: “The number of prison spaces is now an acute challenge for everyone in the criminal justice system and those who protect the public. We are accelerating accommodation arrangements where possible and examining all options for extra capacity in the prison estate as a matter of urgency.”

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said it was “outrageous” court sentences were being dictated by the prison capacity and not the offence committed. Yet again we see the public are being put at risk by the failure of ministers,” he said. “Offenders who should be sent to jail won’t be, and all because the government failed to listen to our and other calls to address the lack of prison capacity over the last few years.”

Operation Safeguard, in which the Home Office asks English and Welsh police forces to look after prisoners, began again this month.

Prison spaces are in such short supply it is understood about 480 people stayed in police stations on Monday and cells at the Old Bailey were also made available this week.