The UK government has introduced a programme allowing early release for some prisoners, including domestic violence offenders, to alleviate severe overcrowding in prisons, as reported by The Times.
This directive, part of the “end of custody supervised licence” (ECSL), was distributed to 21 prisons in England and Wales. Justice Secretary Alex Chalk initiated this scheme, which permits early release of prisoners convicted of domestic abuse and certain violent crimes with sentences under four years.
This action comes as the country’s prison system nears its maximum capacity of 88,782, with a significant number of facilities already at full capacity. Under ECSL, qualifying prisoners can be released 18 days prior to their scheduled release date without necessitating new legislation, using “compassionate grounds” provisions from the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
However, the decision has sparked controversy. Shadow Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood criticised the decision, especially the early release of domestic abusers and stalkers on “compassionate grounds.” The Justice Ministry has been secretive about the specifics of the guidance provided to prisons and the total number of inmates released under this scheme. As of early November, approximately 250 prisoners had been released.
The guidance, classified as “official sensitive,” stipulates that prison directors cannot independently deny eligible prisoners early release, except under exceptional circumstances. These include situations where early release might increase public risk, cannot be mitigated, or if the offender is likely to reoffend at a “high” or “very high” risk level.
There are exclusions under the scheme, such as Category A male prisoners and those serving over four years for violent crimes. However, certain domestic abuse offenders, including those convicted of stalking, harassment, and assault, are eligible. Mahmood has expressed serious concerns about the plan’s lack of transparency and noted that its commencement was not disclosed in Parliament by Chalk. The scheme’s implications and operational details continue to be a matter of public and political debate. She said:
“At the time of writing, the Ministry of Justice has published no details on the workings of the scheme, including in which prisons it is operational, exactly which offenders are eligible and which not, and how the risk to the public is being monitored. No numbers of prisoners released under the scheme, or of those recalled for breaching their licence conditions in the month that it has apparently been in use, have been made available.
We all recognise these decisions have been made following the government’s failure to heed years of warnings about the capacity crisis in prisons — but this cannot justify a failure to be open about the scale on which prisoners are being released before a court intended that they should be, and the potential impact on communities.”
The Ministry of Justice said:
“This government has done more than any other to protect women and girls – keeping sexual offenders behind bars for longer and locking up rapists for the entirety of their sentence. Only offenders at the very end of their sentence are being considered for the scheme, a matter of days before their automatic release. Governors can block the release of any prisoner and anyone convicted of a sexual, terrorist or serious violent offence is excluded. Those who are released face strict monitoring including being tagged, and if offenders break the rules, they will be sent back to prison.”