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PRISONERS SENT HOME FOR XMAS; EXCLUSIVE SHOCK AT FESTIVE EARLY RELEASE SCHEME FOR CROOKS.

Byline: BY JONNY GREATREX

HUNDREDS of inmates are set to be freed early from Midland jails in time for Christmas, the Sunday Mercury can reveal.

The crooks will be let out as part of the Government's controversial bid to free up space in the creaking prison system.

The End of Custody License (ECL) scheme allows inmates to be freed up to 18 days before the end of their sentence.

Figures obtained by the Sunday Mercury show 7,931 crooks were released early from Midlands prisons between June 29 2007 and October 31 2008.

Based on those figures that means around 500 criminals could be let out early next month in time for Christmas Day.

But last night a leading Conservative MP slammed the scheme and warned the public was being put at risk.

"Over 40,000 prisoners have nowbeen freed early to commit over 800 crimes when they should have been behind bars," Shadow Justice Secretary Nick Herbert told the Sunday Mercury.

"This dreadful policy is accelerating and the impact on the public gets worse every month.

"This is the biggest monthly release of prisoners so far, and suggests the Government is now content to go on releasing prisoners early indefinitely because they haven't provided the adequate jail capacity."

The prison population reached an all time high this year, with more than 82,000 inmates behind bars.

Of the 8,000 released early in the Midlands, 1,004 walked out of HMP Glen Parva in Wigston, Leicestershire, with a further500leaving Birmingham's Winson Green jail.

But last night a Ministry of Justice spokesman defended the ECL scheme, saying the department was working to bring it to a close.

"The Justice Secretary has said that we will end ECL when headroom allows," a spokesman said.

"We are working extremely hard, with the fastest ever creation of prison spaces, andwhen ministers judge it is safe to so do, they will end ECL.

"Our view remains that ending ECL is a desirable goal but that this needs to be supported by a sustainable margin between prison capacity and the demand for prison places."

There have been concerns that those released early would commit further crimes but officials claim only a small proportion reoffend.

The spokesman added: "Of those released we have been notified that about three per cent have been recalled.

"Those prisonerswho present the highest risk to the public are excluded from consideration.

"All prisoners released on ECL would have to have been released anyway in a maximum of 18 days' time."

And the Government defended its attempts to solve prison over-crowding, warning the Conservatives would slash spending on the criminal justice system.

A Labour Party spokesman said: "Since 1997 Labour has increased prison capacity by over 23,000 places. Our aim is to achieve a net capacity of just over 96,000 by 2014." And he added: "The Tory's spending plans mean they would have to cut investment in justice."

jonny.greatrex@sundaymercury.net

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It's jingle cells for prisoners who are set to be released early from Winson Green
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Nov 30, 2008
Words:509
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