Pubdate: Thu, 01 Aug 2002
Source: Sunday Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: Telegraph Group Limited 2002
Author: David Bamber, Home Affairs Correspondent


The Home Office has secretly relaxed Prison Service rules to allow up to 
20,000 more prisoners to be released under its electronic tagging scheme, 
according to a leaked Government document.

In a desperate measure to reduce the soaring prison population, David 
Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has told governors to change the rules, 
allowing prisoners previously ineligible for early release to be freed.

Until now, anyone in prison for any offence who had ever been convicted of 
possessing drugs was automatically banned from taking part in the scheme. 
Under the scheme, prisoners are tagged and released two months before the 
end of their sentences. The rule was thought necessary to protect the 
public from criminals who had been involved in possession of drugs.

Now, however, governors have been told to ignore previous convictions for 
possessing drugs, including heroin and cocaine, and consider releasing them.

Mr Blunkett was forced to act after the prison population reached 71,360 in 
July, just 293 short of its overall capacity. A leaked Prison Service memo, 
issued on August 5, shows that the rule barring anyone with a previous 
conviction for drug possession from release has now been dropped.

The Prison Service Instruction (PSI) states: "This PSI removes previous 
drugs possession offences from the list of offences which exclude prisoners 
from consideration for the presumptive home detention curfew scheme."

The memo adds: "Previous convictions for possession of class A, B or C 
drugs do not exclude prisoners from the presumptive scheme."

According to Home Office officials, the exact number of prisoners affected 
is not known, but a recent survey had shown up to 20,000 serving prisoners 
had previous drug possession convictions.

The Home Office said no announcement had been made about the planned 
relaxation of the rules because it was "part of an ongoing policy".

Tagging was introduced three years ago for prisoners who had been sentenced 
to between one and four years in jail and had served a third of their time. 
More 44,000 prisoners have been tagged and released since then.

In March, Mr Blunkett said there would be an expansion of the scheme that 
would allow another 1,350 prisoners serving sentences of between three and 
12 months to go home early. He said that inmates would be "presumed" to be 
safe to release unless there were "compelling reasons" to think otherwise.

However, The Telegraph revealed that tagged prisoners had committed more 
than 1,400 new crimes while on the scheme, including four rapes, 38 serious 
woundings, 82 serious assaults and three kidnappings. Further crimes 
included 19 muggings, 53 burglaries and 223 other thefts. Seven threatened 
to kill people, two were found with guns, 14 with knives and 123 committed 
drugs offences. Seventy-eight criminals, including 10 burglars and eight 
muggers, have also gone missing after cutting off their tags.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: "Many otherwise eligible prisoners were 
being denied consideration under the presumptive scheme because they had a 
previous non-custodial conviction for simple drug possession. It was 
therefore decided to remove this barrier.

"The presumptive scheme remains barred to those with serving prison 
sentences for current convictions for possession and those with current or 
previous convictions for supply of prohibited or controlled drugs."
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