[JURIST] The UK justice minister told the House of Lords [official website] Tuesday that he has given authority to prison governors to "release on licence for offenders who are coming to the end of their sentence" [statement text] as a way to relieve overcrowding of prisons [BBC backgrounder; Guardian Q&A] across England and Wales. Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Lord Falconer of Thoroton [official profile] said that only prisoners who had been sentenced to terms of four years or less would be eligible for release, and even then, only up to 18 days early. Prisoners convicted of serious crimes, such as violent or sexual offenses, would be excluded. He added that 1500 new prison places would be made available starting in 2008, and construction would begin immediately to create the first 500.
Last year British Home Secretary John Reid [official profile] outlined steps to combat the problem of overcrowded prisons [JURIST report], but prison populations have continued to rise since that time. The BBC reports that jails are so crowded some prisoners are being housed in cells located in police stations and courts. Some conservatives opposed Falconer's plan, citing public safety and saying that the proper solution was to build more prisons. The UK Prison Governors Association had recommended that convicts be released a week early to relieve stress on the prison system. The measure will go into effect June 29. BBC has more.