Prison overcrowding in the UK

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In Britain, there's a new push to empty overcrowded prisons. UK is locking up too many people, has too much prison over-crowding and will announce that fewer offenders will be locked up, more will be rehabilitated, and repeat-offender rates are expected to come down as a result. The World's Laura Lynch reports from London.

DAVID BARON: In Britain there's a new push to empty over crowded prisons. Plans for what the government is calling "radical? reforms could see thousands of convicted criminals spared jail sentences in a bid to save money. The World's Laura Lynch reports from London.

LAURA LYNCH: It was the rallying cry of the last conservative government of the mid 1990s when cabinet ministers routinely delivered tough speeches on law and order.

SPEAKER: Prison works. It ensures that we are protected from murders, muggers and rapist.

LYNCH: Since then the prison population has almost doubled in England and Wales to slightly more than 85,000. The move to imprison more and more criminals has been popular. It's also been expensive. At nearly six billion dollars Britain has the most costly prison building program in Europe with a budget cutting mentality enveloping parliament Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is tackling the delicate task of selling the public on plans to keep some criminals out of jail.

KEN CLARKE: There are some very nasty people who commit nasty offenses. They must be punished and communities protected. My first priority as I keep saying is the safety of the British public, that's what the department is for. But just banging up more and more people for longer, without actively seeking to change them, is in my opinion what you would expect of Victorian England.

LYNCH: Clarke is setting the stage for plans to divert those with short term sentences away from prison and into community rehabilitation programs. Probation officers are welcoming the proposals. Spokesman Harry Fletcher says too many minor criminals re-offend because rehabilitation programs inside prisons don't work.

FLETCHER: Last year 55,000 people were in prison for six months or less. They served an average of two months each. Within a very short period of release, 75% have been convicted of an offense again. If they're intensely supervised in the community say, four to six months which would be much, much cheaper the re-offending rates also drop to 34% which is a big gap.

LYNCH: But some prison officers are concerned. Steve Gillan of the Prison Officers Associations says it's more important to focus on preventing men and women from committing crimes in the first place.

sTEVE GILLAN: I'm afraid that needs investment because simply to ignore the root causes of crime which is drugs, alcohol, and mental health issues then if we don't get to the root causes of it we're never going to resolve it.

LYNCH: As for the criminals themselves this man, who doesn't want to be identified, went to jail for a month earlier this year for assault. He says seeing harden convicts on the inside was eye opening.

SPEAKER: They come into your room every day, so it's a brutal place. A lot of violence, a lot of trouble.

LYNCH: He also says his time in prison had a profound affect on him and prompted him to change his ways.

SPEAKER: In some ways it's probably the best experience I've had. Not in the sense that is was a nice experience. It was a horrible, horrible experience, but it did open my eyes to a whole new world and it made me realize that I had to change my life or else I would be in this place for a long time, which I did not want to be.

LYNCH: If these reforms do go ahead not only will it end nearly two decades of rising prison populations it will also end the hefty price tag that goes with them. An attractive proposition for a government that's desperately short of cash. For the World, I'm Laura Lynch, in London.