Early release for violent criminals

Violent criminals will be freed from prison despite government assurances that only low-risk offenders would be released early, the EDP can exclusively reveal.

Violent criminals will be freed from prison despite government assurances that only low-risk offenders would be released early, the EDP can exclusively reveal.

Inmates convicted of actual bodily harm, armed robbery and possession of firearms will be among 1,800 offenders given early release in the next week as the government bids to alleviate the prisons crisis.

Ministers initially insisted the scheme would not apply to those who had committed “serious sexual or violent crimes”. But a memo to governors reveals only a limited number of the most dangerous offenders - such as murderers, sex offenders and terrorists - will be exempt.

This backtracks from the original instructions issued when the scheme was launched, stating all prisoners “currently serving a sentence for an offence of violence” would be excluded.

South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon described the situation as “wholly unacceptable”. He said: “If the prisons are overcrowded and the government, as a matter of policy, decides it must release some inmates, the protection of the public must remain its top priority.

“If prisoners who commit violent crimes have their human rights infringed upon slightly as a result - for example by having to sleep two or three to a cell for a short period - this is preferable to compromising the right of the public to be protected.

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“The government has been aware of the impending crisis for years and something should have been acted sooner. The irony of this is there are thousands of people - including the mentally ill - who should never be in prison in the first place.”

It has also emerged that, under the same 'prison service instruction', only governors will be entitled to recall prisoners to jail for breaching the terms of their licence. This has led to fears that breaches may go un-noticed if an offender relocates out of the prison's area.

Brian Butcher, chief executive of Victim Support Norfolk, said it was important the normal processes surrounding release from prison were not bypassed.

“On the whole victims' main concerns are not to see offenders imprisoned but to see their offending behaviour stopped,” he said. “If the individuals being released have been rehabilitated and no longer pose a risk to the public they will be satisfied.

“Our concern is that the normal tests that apply to prisoner release remain in place and that they are monitored properly in the community, particularly if they are leaving the prison area. Until we are confident that this is the case their will be a question mark over public safety.

“Unfortunately, as often happens, we will probably not know whether or not this is the case until something goes wrong.”

Under the early release scheme about 25,000 prisoners who receive sentences of between four weeks and four years will be eligible for release 18 days before their scheduled release date.

Among those who will not be eligible for early release are murderers, anybody who has attempted to kill another person and anyone convicted of using explosives or attempting to commit terrorism on aircrafts.

However, there are many less serious violent crimes which are not exempt including robbery and a range of assaults including domestic violence. There is also no exemption for persistent criminals such as career burglars.

The mandatory order states: “Governors must priorities this work to ensure that as many eligible prisoners as possible are released on June 29 and that subsequently prisoners are released as soon as possible on reaching their eligibility date.”

Up to 20 prisoners will be released from Norwich prison by Monday with more to follow in coming weeks. Governor James Shanley said: “Work is currently under way to identify those prisoners who can be released early

“Once this initial phase is completed then that work decreases as people come up to the end of there term of imprisonment.”

The new Justice Minister, Jack Straw, defended the move yesterday in his first interview, saying criminals freed early would be “carefully selected” by prison governors but reassuring the public that the doors of prisons were not “simply being opened.”

The government is keen to see more case dealt with using community measures after the prison population in England and Wales hit a record of 81,016. Norwich has been among the worst hit prisons with its Victorian A-wing - condemned by inspectors - was forced to reopen just days after it closed in an attempt to alleviate the crisis.

Chief executive of ex-offenders' charity Nacro, Paul Cavadino, said: “The early release of non-violent prisoners is the only immediately available way of relieving the prison population crisis. The early release scheme will increase public protection, not reduce it.

“Because it involves supervision, the scheme should reduce these prisoners' chances of reoffending. By reducing prison overcrowding, it will give prisons a better chance to rehabilitate offenders and thereby reduce crime on release.”

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