A NEW government sentencing policy that would give offenders a ?short sharp shock? is set to be delayed amid alarm that its introduction will send the prison population spiralling out of control.

There are also fears that many probation services will face problems providing staff to monitor offenders when they are released from their short jail terms. The training of magistrates and judges in how to use the sentence is also running behind schedule. 
 
The difficulties facing the proposed introduction of new ?custody plus? sentences in November come as John Reid, the Home Secretary, is considering whether to begin a new prison building programme. With the prison population 183 short of its record of 77,823, Mr Reid has asked officials to look at every aspect of building new jails from potential sites, planning processes and costings. ?Nothing is being ruled out,? a Whitehall source said. A Home Office spokesman said: ?The National Offender Management Service is closely monitoring the prison population, which fluctuates on a daily basis, and it continues to investigate options for providing further increases in capacity.? He added that a further 1,000 new places were planned in existing jails, which would take the total number of spaces to 80,400 by 2007.

Jails in London are bursting at the seams with offenders arriving from courts being locked out, and then sent around the country to any jail with spare spaces.

Last week the service took emergency action when it announced that it would start the immediate conversion of two women?s prisons into jails for men. The decision was made because officials are concerned that, if the prison population continues to rise at its present rate, jails will be so full that inmates might have to be held in police cells this summer.

Those population pressures could be made even worse by the introduction of custody plus, a new sentence intended for the 61,000 offenders a year who are imprisoned for 12 months or less. The penalty reduces the amount of time an offender spends in prison but, unlike the existing system, makes them subject to supervision on their release. At the moment an offender sentenced to under 12 months is automatically released at the halfway point but is not supervised in the community for the rest of the sentence.

Under ?custody plus?, offenders must be given between two and thirteen weeks in jail followed by at least six months probation on their release. Officials now fear that the introduction of the new sentence could lead to a further jump in the prison population because magistrates and judges will prefer to give an offender a short taste of prison rather than giving them a non custodial sentence.

?Without a great deal of clarity about ?custody plus?, it will actually pull more people into the system and some people who should be on community orders will be in jail,? a probation service source said recently. He added: ?Judges are relishing the prospect of giving someone a taste of prison plus all the elements of a community order?.

At the moment the Prison Service is 1,860 spaces short of being full, but last month Phil Wheatley, the director-general of the service, gave a clear warning of his concern about the future when he asked whether the planned 80,000 capacity for the system would be enough to deal with the numbers being dealt with by the courts. He admitted that the Prison Service was ?very tight for room?. Mr Wheatley added in an interview with Police Review: ?As long as I am not being asked to lock up more people than I can safely lock up, then I am OK. The question for the future is whether this is going to be sufficient?? Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said yesterday: ?There are real fears that magistrates will use it [custody plus] as an alternative to giving people a non-custodial penalty.?
 
 

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