Emergency plan triggered by government in a bid to ease overcrowding 'crisis' in jails

The government has been forced to trigger an emergency plan to deal with overcrowding in England's jails, as ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen reports

An emergency plan has been triggered by the government to ease overcrowding in prisons which could mean some court hearings are delayed.

The mechanism, called Operation Early Dawn, is expected to be in action for a week.

The measure is a long-standing contingency plan, and allows defendants to be held in police cells until prison beds become available, but could mean their court dates are delayed or adjourned.

It allows the prison service to make judgements each morning on whether prisoners are taken to courts or remain in police cells.

Justice officials are yet to confirm how many cases will be affected but stressed the measures, while rolled out across England, do not mean there will be delays in every region and insisted the plan was put in place to limit disruption.

ITV News understands the current locations where the plan is being activated are London and the North East.

The Ministry of Justice said: “We continue to see pressure on our prisons following the impact of the pandemic and barristers’ strike which is why we have initiated a previously used measure to securely transfer prisoners between courts and custody and ensure there is always a custody cell available should they be remanded."

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The move has raised questions as to whether defendants who would normally be held in custody on remand while their case moves through the courts may have to be initially released on bail. Although the government said courts and police are not being instructed to do so.

It comes as Sir Keir Starmer urged Rishi Sunak to stop trying to issue “get out of jail free cards” to criminals during Prime Minister's Questions, comparing the Prime Minister to a “jumped-up milk monitor”.

The Labour leader referenced another government scheme which allows some low-level offenders to be released early, and is due to be extended from next week to allow sentences to be cut by up to 70 days.

Sir Keir accused the Tory government of causing "chaos" in the prison system, asking "does the prime minister think that his decision to allow prisoners out 70 days early makes our country more secure?"

The government's End of Custody Supervised License Scheme (ECSL) initially involved inmates being released up to 18 days early. That was then extended to between 35 and 60 days in March, and will be further extended to 70 days from 23 May.

A row broke out during PMQs over whether prisoners who are considered high risk will be released under the scheme, after a report from the prison's inspector said high risk offenders including a domestic abuser who posed a risk to children had been released.

Charlie Taylor's report said he had "serious concerns" about the early release scheme, citing an inmate at HMP Lewes who posed a danger to children having his release date brought forward.

In light of this report, Sir Keir pressed the PM for assurance on whether the prisoners being let out early are "considered to be high risk."

Mr Sunak responded by saying: "Let me be crystal clear, no-one would be put on the scheme if they were deemed a threat to the public. Offenders are subject to the toughest of licensing conditions, and if those conditions are broken, they are back in prison for considerably longer."

But there are significant concerns that people convicted of domestic violence are being released under the scheme.

Abigail Ampofo CEO of the domestic violence charity Refuge said this announcement was a "disappointing suprise" and will have a "huge impact" on survivors of domestic abuse.

"One of the things we know is domestic abuse is poorly understood, it's not neccessarily the easiest crime to be able to achieve a prosecution for, and not knowing when your perpetrator is going to be released not only puts you at physical risk, but there's a huge amount of psychological concern and lack of safety."

The Labour leader criticised the PM for focusing too much on "the war against lanyards", rather than on issues like the "prison system in chaos".

The government blame overcrowding in UK jails on pressures during the pandemic and industrial action by barristers in 2022. But prisons watchdog Charlie Taylor has branded the situation “entirely predictable”.

"The criminal justice system is in crisis": Law Society say

David McNeill, Director of Public Affairs and the Law Society told ITV News this scheme could increase the risk to the public: "some defendants who would otherwise normally be held in prison on remand, because of the severity of the case or the risk of running away, will now instead be given bail and will be free."

"The whole of the criminal justice systrem is in crisis, there's been a lack of investment for over a decade", he said.

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