UK is jailing too many, warns lord chief

Originally published in The Brief Times Law


One of the country’s most senior judges has called for fewer offenders to be jailed.


Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the lord chief justice, warned that the prison population, which is now more than 85,000 in England and Wales, was “very, very high”. And he told MPs that there were concerns that it could rise further still.


Thomas, the top judge in England and Wales, said that much more could be done to explore non-custodial sentences for some offenders, including “very tough” non-custodial penalties.


He told the House of Commons justice committee yesterday: “The prison population is very, very high at the moment. Whether it will continue to rise is always difficult to tell but there are worries that it will. “I’m not sure that at the end of the day we can’t dispose of more by really tough, and I do mean tough, community penalties.”


His comments come as prisons face unprecedented overcrowding and violence. Last week Michael Gove, the former lord chancellor and justice secretary, said that his successor, Liz Truss, should use her powers to release 500 prisoners serving sentences for public protection who have outstayed their minimum jail terms.


Thomas also gave backing to greater use of problem-solving courts, which involve sending offenders for treatment. They are thought to have Truss’s backing, but are understood not to be an immediate priority. Thomas also called for an experiment in the doubling of magistrates’ sentencing powers from the present six months to 12.


Magistrates and crown courts needed to be better integrated, with better dialogue between them, he said. That could be the way to ensure that the right sentences were imposed and to avoid any “bulge” in prison numbers that it was feared would result from higher sentencing powers.