“I TAKE into account the situation with prisons,” is a statement that has been heard in judges sentencing speeches throughout this year as overcrowding reached an all-time high since 2011.

The prison population fell at the start of 2020, declining by six per cent according to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, over the year to March 2021.

This was in part due to the Covid pandemic, leading to court closures and social distancing, as well as releasing a small number of people early.

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However, between April 2021 and December 2022, the prison population increased at an average rate of 220 people per month.

Between December 2022 and mid-October 2023, this increased to 605 per month, helping the total prison population reach 88,225 – the highest level since at least January 2011. 

As a result, many defendants who may have faced an immediate custodial sentence have avoided jail altogether.

Oxford Mail: HMP Bullingdon near Bicester HMP Bullingdon near Bicester (Image: NQ)At the start of this month, the head of the National Crime Agency (NCA) said that "too few paedophiles were being sent to prison".

It is reported that only 20 per cent of people convicted of viewing indecent images of children receive an immediate jail term.

The alternative is a suspended sentence or a community order.

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Graeme Biggar, director general of the NCA, said that while the alternatives, such as rehabilitation, could work for some defendants, the balance at the moment "does not feel right".

Speaking to journalists, he said: “We are in ongoing discussions with the Home Office who are thinking about this and are trying to establish what would be the right approach.

“Judges will look at each case and will think about a particular case in a way that is very hard for me to take a view of the totality…I just think that balance needs to shift slightly.”

Asked if he thought that more people should go to jail, he replied: “I do.”

The government is working on plans to deal with the problem such as allowing prisoners an early release up to 18 days before their automatic release date.

Foreign offenders will also be released early so they can be removed from the UK.

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It will also legislate for the presumption that sentences of less than 12 months in prison will be suspended.

A suspended sentence means that the person does not have to go to prison provided they commit no further offences and comply with any requirements imposed for the relevant period.

Plans to invest £400 million in prison places are also in the works.