Prison population could rise due to new court order breach rules, MPs warn


A proposed overhaul of rules for sentencing offenders who flout court orders could spark a rise in the prison population, MPs say.

New guidelines have been drawn up for judges and magistrates dealing with individuals who breach measures imposed on them as part of community or suspended penalties.

The Commons Justice Committee said draft guidelines on breaches of community orders (COs) and suspended sentence orders (SSOs) give rise to similar concerns as it raised in relation to proposals for knife crimes.

In that report, the MPs called on ministers to set out how they will accommodate any "substantial" increase in prisoners as a result of new guidelines.

The committee's assessment on court order breaches said: "We consider there to be a real risk that the new guidelines will generate an increase in custodial sentences without there being a commitment by the Ministry of Justice to meet the additional demand."

It calls on the Sentencing Council to present the Ministry of Justice with a "more accurate estimate of impact" as soon as possible after the guidelines take effect to allow any expected increase in prison population to be factored into planning of the custodial estate.

Offenders given suspended sentences can stay out of prison if they comply with requirements set by the court.

Those handed non-custodial community sentences are also required to meet conditions such as carrying out unpaid work.

Figures show 57,072 offenders had a suspended sentence order imposed in 2015, while 114,286 were handed a community order.

If an offender fails to comply with the conditions of their CO or SSO, or commits a further offence during the operational period of the order, they face being returned to court.

However, a lack of data on how breaches are dealt with has emerged as an obstacle to drawing up precise estimates of the potential impact on prison, probation and youth justice resources.

The prison population in England and Wales stood at 84,390 last week, just over 1,300 below the estate's "usable operational capacity".

Campaigners have repeatedly highlighted the issue of overcrowding amid surging levels of violence behind bars.

Responses to a consultation on the draft guidelines on breaches of court orders will be considered by the Sentencing Council before it publishes the final version.

The Ministry of Justice said sentencing decisions are a matter for independent judges.