Martin Rackstraw comments on the Ministry of Justice's recent report which predicts that the prison population in England and Wales will increase by around 20,000 to over 98,000 by 2026.

The explanation behind these alarming figures is that an increase in police numbers will result in a rise in the number of criminal prosecutions. If this projection is anywhere near reliable, it raises very serious questions about whether the existing approach to sentencing is sustainable.

Prisoner numbers have exploded since the 1990s as successive governments have striven to appear 'tough' on crime by raising maximum sentences and creating ever more criminal offences. During the same period the judiciary, and particularly the Court of Appeal, has continued to enthusiastically rely on custody as the preferred sentencing option in ever more cases with individual sentences increasing in length. However, while locking up more offenders for longer periods may be seen as a popular policy with the public, investing in prisons and prison staff is perceived to have somewhat less appeal, and so spending on rehabilitation in prisons has not kept pace with the rising prison population. The inevitable result has been a prison service struggling with chronic overcrowding, lack of resources, serious mental health problems and dismal rates of re-offending.

If the Government's own predictions are fulfilled, then only a colossal investment in the prison estate will prevent the system breaking down altogether. There was no realistic prospect of that investment happening even in a benign economic environment; in the current situation it is unthinkable.

Government tends to treat the phenomenon of the rising prison population is if it were a natural process over which it has no control. The opposite is true. There is a range of options that could, and should, be tried immediately to prioritise the use of non-custodial sentences. These could include (but are not limited to) ending short custodial sentences under 12 months, and ending the imprisonment offenders over the age of say 70 other than in exceptional circumstances. More fundamentally, imprisonment for non-dangerous offenders should be limited to a small number of particularly serious cases.

Sadly, there is almost no indication from the Government or Judiciary that a fundamental change in the approach to sentencing will appear any time soon, but without this the prison system will continue to fail both prisoners and the public.