How sexual offenders could be excluded from government's early prison release plans

Credit: PA

By the end of this week, the government is likely to be closing in on a controversial decision on how to deal with severe overcrowding in prisons.

The most probable option taken by the new Justice Secretary Shabana Mahmood is to change the automatic release point on standard determinate sentences from 50% of the sentence to 40%.

Those sentences do not cover the most serious cases like murder and rape, but they do include other serious crimes.

It is my understanding that Ms Mahmood is likely to exclude two categories if she goes ahead with the reform: sex crimes and serious violence.

That would still leave a situation in which those convinced of burglary could be released earlier. But Ministry of Justice (MoJ) sources stress the release is on licence and that people can be returned to jail if they break the conditions of their release.

I'm told previous Conservative Justice Secretary Alex Chalk was considering the same change with exclusions.

But even this controversial decision would only delay the prison crisis for 18 months.

Sources say the plans needed to go alongside an overhaul in sentencing that would see fewer people sent to jail for short sentences.

Mr Chalk was also keen to take action in this area, with officials arguing that a 55% reoffending rate with a short sentence is cut to 24% if the sentence is suspended.

James Timpson, who has been appointed as a prisons minister, has long argued that too many people are jailed.

Tackling short sentences would be one way to lift pressure on jail. But another would be to tackle court delays, as a spike in the number of people on remand and in custody is a major driver overcrowding. Another option for the MoJ could be to reverse a decision in 2020 that those who have committed the most serious sexual and violent crimes to only become eligible for release after two thirds of their sentence.

Have you heard our new podcast Talking Politics? Tom, Robert and Anushka dig into the biggest issues dominating the political agenda in every episode…