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Why are prisoners released at the half way point?

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As many are aware, anyone sentenced to a term of imprisonment will usually under the current legal system only serve half of the sentence (or less if they are eligible for Home Detention Curfew) before they are released on licence if they have been given a determinate sentence.  That means a sentence which has a set term, unlike life imprisonment.     It has recently been reported in the news that Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, has said that he wants to get tougher on Britain’s sentencing rules that let inmates walk free from prison early.  This is in response to apparent public opinion that sentences given in the UK are ‘dishonest and misleading’.   Grayling has stated that he would like to introduce a system whereby prisoners will only be released at the half way point if they have behaved in prison, and in effect ‘earned’ their release.

So why do prisoners get released at the half way point?  Is it dishonest and misleading for judges to pass certain determinate sentences (which are then reported in the media) for the offender to be released at a period much less?

In order to answer these questions, we need to look at what happens when a prisoner is released.

For offences committed prior to April 2005 there are three types of release schemes:-

Automatic Unconditional Release Scheme – Prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months are released automatically and unconditionally without supervision at the halfway point of the sentence.

Automatic Conditional Release Scheme – Prisoners sentenced to 12 months but less than 4 years, if not placed on Home detention curfew, are released automatically on licence at the halfway point of their sentence on their Conditional Release Date. These prisoners will be subject to compulsory supervision.

Discretionary Conditional Release Scheme – sentences of 4 years or more (but not life) for offences committed before 4 April 2005 are subject to discretionary conditional release (DCR), which means that the prisoner becomes eligible for release at the half way stage. It is not automatic, but is at the discretion of the Parole Board. If release is approved, they are released on licence. This form of release is now used on a more limited basis following section 26 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 and release will often take place at the halfway stage of a sentence.

For offences committed after April 2005 in relation to the Standard Determinate Sentence of 12 months or more (but not life sentences) – Release will be automatic at the halfway point, or earlier if released on HDC. Prisoners will be released on licence and supervised by the Probation Service until the sentence expiry date.  The position for sentences less than 12 months is the same as detailed above.

It therefore may seem that the way sentences are misleading, but we believe it goes to far to say that it is dishonest.  In certain circumstances, a prisoner could serve the full term of his sentence.  Once on licence, if an offender reoffends or his life spirals out of control, they can be ‘recalled’ to prison to serve the rest of their sentence.  A period of licence and supervision can sometimes be crucial in the effective rehabilitation of an offender, and offers a great deal of support.  For some, this may be the only support they have in the community and can help to stop the offender committing further offences.

When a person is sentenced in court, the Judge will clearly explain how the sentence will work, and that the prisoner will likely serve half the term, subject to being on licence for the remainder.    It may be that the reporters fail to explain this appropriately in the media.

At Emery Johnson, we have a dedicated prison law team, who advise on all aspects of prison law including licence conditions, home detention curfew, and recall.  If you are a prisoner or a family member, who requires advice in respect of these matters, please do not hesitate to contact us.