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When a person in England and Wales is given a sentence of imprisonment for a period of time they will not usually spend all of that time in prison. The law allows for prisoners to be released on licence to serve the last part of their sentence in the community. Depending on the type of prison sentence the person is given, they can be:

  • released from prison automatically at the halfway point of their sentence;
  • released at the two thirds point of their sentence if the Parole Board decides it is no longer necessary to keep them in prison for the protection of the public; or
  • released after the end of the minimum term of a life sentence if the Parole Board decides it is no longer necessary to keep them in prison for the protection of the public.

A person released on licence will be supervised by probation staff and must comply with certain conditions. If they breach the conditions of their licence they can be returned (recalled) to prison to serve part, or all, of the remainder of their sentence in prison.

The law on the point at which a prisoner can be released and whether the Parole Board is involved has changed over the years.

Various reasons have been put forward for having systems of releasing prisoners into the community before the end of their term of imprisonment. These include pragmatic reasons such as reducing overcrowding in prisons. Release part way through a sentence can also serve a rehabilitative purpose, allowing for supervision of prisoners in the community.

In both the October and December 2019 Queen’s Speeches the Government set out plans for a Sentencing Bill, which would increase the automatic release point for certain serious violent or sexual offenders from the halfway point to the two-thirds point. The Government has said it will publish a white paper before introducing the Sentencing Bill.

The Government laid a draft order in October 2019 which provides that prisoners would be released automatically at the two thirds point of their sentence if they had been:

  • convicted of a relevant violent or sexual offence for which the maximum penalty is life; and
  • sentenced to a standard determinate sentence of seven years or more.

The Government has explained it is seeking to make this change now, by statutory instrument, ahead of wider reforms in a sentencing bill because not to do so would mean “continuing with a system which fails properly to ensure that serious offenders serve sentences that reflect the gravity of their crime”.

The Government says this change would provide greater assurance to victims and the public that sentences will reflect the severity of their crime. Critics of the proposed change argue it will not meet these aims.

A debate on the draft order in the Lords raised questions regarding the impact on prison overcrowding and conditions. Concerns were also raised about a lack of public consultation and how the measure would fit with other Government policies on sentencing. It was noted that under the proposals, individuals would spend less time under probation supervision.

The draft order will be debated in the Commons on 28 January 2020.

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