The Increase in the UK Prison Population

The UK prison population is on the increase, and has been steadily rising for a number of years with no signs of decreasing. The Government says that since 1945, the total prison population increased from around 15,000 to more than 86,000 – and has almost doubled since 1993. In 2017 alone, there was a summer surge of offenders sent to prison in England and Wales – the number rose by 1,200 between May and August.

What are the main reasons for this increase?

Government figures show that there are longer determinate sentences being handed down and offenders are spending longer periods of time in prison. Certain levels of serious crime will often remain static. However, other types of crime fluctuate. In particular, there has been a rise in immediate custodial sentences being handed down for convictions for violence against the person, sexual offences and drug offences. Prison sentences given to sex offenders have now reached record levels.

There is also a growing drug problem in the UK with a corresponding number of convictions for serious drugs offences for which prison sentences are imposed. This is a very significant factor in the increase in the prison population, reflecting the Government’s ‘war on drugs’ (15% of men and women in prison are currently serving sentences for drug offence).

In addition, there is the new Extended Determinate Sentences (EDS) which replaced the Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence. Most EDSs are handed down following convictions for sexual and violent crimes. They are made up of a custodial term plus an extended period of licence (with no automatic release half-way through the sentence). This means that as more EDSs are handed down by judges, the number of prisoners serving determinate sentences of 4 years or more go up.

There has also been a rise in the number of prisoners on recall: offenders who have been released on licence but are recalled to prison for failing to comply with their licence conditions.

What other relevant factors affect the rising UK prison population?

The following cultural and political factors may also contribute to the increasing prison population:

  • The media and its stance on crime
  • Political reasons
  • Sentencing reasons

The media and its stance on crime

Following a number of high-profile cases in the early 90s where there was a particular media outcry in relation to certain criminal offences, the general media stance towards punishment became more punitive. Rather than advocating more community sentences, the media became far less tolerant of offenders and demanded longer sentences. In our society, the media can wield huge power and influence – even in the realm of crime and punishment.

Political reasons

When new governments come into power, one issue which is always up for debate is how they are going to tackle the problem of crime in our society. Often, a new government vows to be tough on crime, and (following chance in the law and/or sentencing guidelines) offenders are then dealt with potentially more seriously than previously.

Sentencing reasons

Often, tougher sentencing by the courts would be directly linked to an increase in offending, but this is not necessarily the case. The courts may lose confidence in some community measures which had been intended as an alternative to sentencing, and will impose a custodial sentence instead. Also, judges sometimes impose a seemingly harsh sentence as a warning to others.

Is this rise in the prison population a serious problem?

Many critics argue that prison is being used too readily, and at significant cost to the British tax payer, when other effective punishments could be handed down. However, others argue that prison is the only option for a country that needs to tackle the problem of crime with a hard hand.

The practical problem is the growing strain on UK prisons and the shortage of prison capacity to house more prisoners. In recent times, there have been many reports of prison riots and a breakdown of order within prison walls. How the Government will deal with this problem remains to be seen.