Should ‘low risk’ prisoners be released to aid coronavirus battle?

Should 'low-risk' prisoners be released to aid the coronavirus battle? Picture: KEIRON TOVELL

Should 'low-risk' prisoners be released to aid the coronavirus battle? Picture: KEIRON TOVELL - Credit: Archant Eastern Daily Press

The Government is being urged to release “low-risk” inmates serving a short jail sentence back into the community to slim the prison population and aid the coronavirus battle.

HMP Highpoint in Stradishall, near Newmarket Picture: ARCHANT

HMP Highpoint in Stradishall, near Newmarket Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: Eastern Daily Press, Archant

The think tank Reform says emergency legislation should be used to release eligible prisoners serving a sentence of six months or less back into the community with an electronic tag, which will aid the COVID-19 response in the short-term.

Reform estimates that there are 2,305 ‘low-risk’ offenders currently serving a ‘short’ sentence for crimes such as shoplifting, who should be released and punished in the community.

The organisation argues that by releasing these inmates, the strain will be eased on the prison population and staff during the crisis without compromising public safety.

Reform’s comments come after a prisoner in HMP Manchester tested positive for coronavirus this week prompting concerns from campaigners that the virus would spread quickly in jails.

Campaigner Faith Spear Picture: KJ SPEAR

Campaigner Faith Spear Picture: KJ SPEAR - Credit: Archant

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The think tank added that the cost of monitoring an offender with an electronic tag is around £166 a month, while a full community sentence, which may include unpaid work, alcohol monitoring and probation meetings, would cost around £368 a month. This compares to £3,601 for a month for a prison place.

Community punishment has also been found to be more effective on average at reducing reoffending, compared to a short prison sentence, Reform said.

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However, the prison service said there are no plans to release prisoners as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

MORE: HMP Warren Hill is ‘safest category C prison in country’Prison commentator and campaigner Faith Spear, from Ipswich, said if short sentences lead to greater reoffending then it is “obvious” that alternatives need to be used.

“Many are aware that the continued rise in the prison population is not sustainable. So, if community sentences are more effective in reducing re-offending, then it’s important that this option is considered to a greater degree,” she said.

“But we have to have a joined-up system, Probation must be up to the job in supervising, yet they are often overwhelmed and overworked as it is. Let’s not pass the problem from one department to another.

MORE: Latest on coronavirus here“There has been talk for so long concerning short custodial sentences having a disproportionate effect on not just the individual sentenced but, on their work, home, and family. It’s not a matter of picking up the pieces on release as a short sentence can mean they lose everything.

“If short sentences lead to greater reoffending, then surely, it’s obvious that alternatives must be used.

“It’s incredible that we wait for a pandemic to deal with prison population issues. Many prisons are at breaking point, overpopulated, underfunded and understaffed. Prison healthcare cannot cope with a crisis at the best of times, let alone with the increasing risk of COVID-19.

“Yet, the problem with reports, reviews and recommendations is that they look good on paper and often make sense. But those that write them have no mandate to implement them.”

A Prison Service spokesman said:“We have no plans to release any prisoners as a result of Covid-19 and are focused on protecting the welfare of our staff, prisoners and visitors.”

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