Keir Starmer promises to send fewer people to prison as he prepares to release offenders early

Sir Keir Starmer has promised to send fewer people to jail in the long term while he prepares to oversee the mass early release of prisoners to ease the overcrowding crisis facing the UK’s jails.

The prime minister hit out at the inheritance left for him by the Conservatives and branded Britain’s prison system “broken”, speaking of his shock at discovering the scale of the crisis.

And Sir Keir warned he cannot build new prisons in just seven days.

It has led to widespread expectations that the new justice secretary, Shabana Mahmood, will use a major speech on Friday to unveil measures aimed at easing the crisis.

The prime minister said he was “pretty shocked” at the scale of the situation (PA Wire)
The prime minister said he was “pretty shocked” at the scale of the situation (PA Wire)

The spate of emergency measures is set to include automatically releasing prisoners on standard determinate sentences after they have served just 40 per cent of their time. The current threshold is 50 per cent, and exemptions for serious violent and sexual offenders are expected.

Former justice secretary Alex Chalk told the BBC on Thursday that the last government had planned to release some prisoners after serving 40 per cent of their time, with an aim to jail fewer people altogether.

The plans were not implemented for fears it would damage the Tories’ electoral chances and face a lack of support in parliament, he said.

Speaking to Channel 4 while attending the Nato summit in Washington, DC, Sir Keir said: “I’m shocked to be in this position, particularly having worked in criminal justice. It is a basic function of government that there should be enough prison places for the number of people that courts are sending to prison. That basic premise broke down under the last government, that is beyond irresponsible, and we’re going to have to pick up that mess and they ignored it.

“I can’t build a prison in seven days with the best will in the world. It is clearly a problem left by the last government. We cannot be in this terrible state and they ignored the problem, didn’t fix the problem, we are going to have to fix it.

Former justice secretary Alex Chalk said there were plans in place to ease the crisis but they were dropped for political reasons (Getty Images)
Former justice secretary Alex Chalk said there were plans in place to ease the crisis but they were dropped for political reasons (Getty Images)

“We have to make short-term measures that we will announce in due course and then of course we’ll have to do even further measures. I simply can’t build a prison in seven days.

“This is a terrible failure of the last government.”

The PM indicated in the interview that longer term he would aim to send fewer people to prison in the first place.

It follows the appointment of James Timpson as prisons minister, with the businessman having previously said only a third of those in jail should be there.

He has also said Britain is “addicted to sentencing and punishment”, and spoken of the need to reduce reoffending rates.

Sir Keir said: “I spent five years of my life as the chief prosecutor, bringing cases which led to serious criminals going to prison for very long periods of time. In relation to the work that could be done to prevent people going to prison, I have always believed that there are cases which didn’t need to have got to court.”

He cited a promise during the general election campaign to prevent young people from falling into knife crime by setting up youth hubs as “an opportunity to pull people out”.

And on those who may be released under the emergency measures to relieve overcrowding, Sir Keir made clear that “there will be exclusions”.

But, in another interview, he told ITV: “Of course I can’t tell you how frustrated I am to be put in this position by the previous government. It’s worse than we thought… It is a catastrophic failure. It’s reckless to have allowed this to have happened, we’ll have to take the necessary action.”

Sir Keir’s predecessor as director of public prosecutions said the prime minister faces a “huge political risk” releasing prisoners early, as some will go on to re-offend.

Lord Macdonald told Times Radio: “If you release a big batch of prisoners, some of them will go on to offend... We have the worst recidivism rates in western Europe.

“People come out of prison, they offend... So, yes, of course, there’s a huge political risk here. I think what’s depressing about this is that the only reason we’re really confronting this problem now is because the government has no choice. It literally has no choice because it’s got no cells to put prisoners in."