The number of prisoners in England and Wales is projected to fall in the short term due to fewer people being charged with criminal offences.
The prison population was initially projected to rise in the short term, but figures from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) show it is instead likely to decrease in the next two years, to a low of 81,000 by April 2021.
Last year the MoJ estimated there would be roughly 86,400 people in jail in March 2023, but its latest prediction is that there could be 4,000 fewer by June that year.
It noted that the predictions could yet change again and did not take into account the impact of any upcoming policy changes. It said there was up to a 20% likelihood of the prison population being 3,500 higher in June 2023 than it was now predicting.
This month Boris Johnson announced a review of the policy of allowing some prisoners with a fixed sentence to be released on licence midway through their term on condition of continued good behaviour, and a look at potentially introducing longer sentences for violent and sexual offences. He also announced a plan to recruit 20,000 extra police officers.
A total of 83,116 people were in custody at the last count, of whom 82,905 were inmates in jails across England and Wales and 211 were detained in HM Prison Service-managed immigration removal centres.
Over the next five years the prison population is projected to increase slightly, to 82,000 in 2024. The populations of over-60s, over-70s juveniles and female adults are projected to remain steady over that time.
Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the projections were likely to prove wide of the mark. She said: “The prison population is a political decision not an inevitability. When politicians exploit crime and sentencing for their own purposes, the prison population inflates.”
Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “In the light of the prime Minister’s recent announcements, these projections represent an heroically optimistic prediction. But even if they turn out to be right, they show that there will be no end to the overcrowding that constantly undermines the government’s stated ambition of a safe and effective prison system. Tough rhetoric will only make matters worse, repeating the mistakes of the past.”
Charlotte Pickles, the director of the Reform thinktank, said: “These lower projections do not green-light the government’s criminal justice reforms. Sixty-two per cent of prisons are currently overcrowded, and we have the highest prison population in western Europe. The Ministry of Justice is also clear that these predictions are likely to change when the prime minister’s plans for tougher sentences come into effect.”
An MoJ spokeswoman said: “Our £2.5bn long-term building programme will provide 10,000 additional prison places, reducing overcrowding and creating a prison estate that is fit for the future. Modern, efficient jails provide us with the stability needed to rehabilitate offenders, preventing future victims and keeping the public safe.”