Campaigners are calling for Wales to reduce its reliance on prisons after a new study found that the country has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe.
In the first study of its kind, Cardiff University found a higher proportion of Wales’ overall population was serving time in prison than England for every year since 2013, when data became available.
England and Wales jointly has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe, but the Ministry of Justice has never broken the data down any further.
To ascertain figures for each country, researchers using freedom of information requests, obtained data on offender’s home addresses as a means of differentiating between the two countries.
They found there were 154 prisoners per 100,000 of the population of Wales, compared with 141 per 100,000 in England.
This is despite the fact that police recorded crime in Wales was lower than England in every year between 2013 and 2017. The average rate of offences in Wales was 62.5 compared to 68.6 offences in England during this period.
Prison reform campaigners and the author of the report, Sentencing and Immediate Custody in Wales: A Factfile, Dr Robert Jones say the findings are a major cause for concern.
Jones said: “It is well-established that England and Wales has the highest imprisonment rates in Western Europe. But this report, for the very first time, singles Wales out within that jurisdiction. It shows that Wales in fact has a higher rate of imprisonment than England.
“These figures enable the authorities and elected members to analyse and scrutinise Wales as a unit within the criminal justice system, when it comes to sentencing and custody rates.”
“Gradually, a detailed picture is emerging of the justice system in Wales and how it is quite different to that of England.
“A thorough debate is needed on why these kinds of sentencing and custodial patterns occur in Wales and whether these are the outcomes that the UK and Welsh Governments want to see from the criminal justice system.”
The report uncovers a number of other significant disparities between Wales and England, including the length of sentences.
In 2017, the average custodial sentence length for all offences in England was 17.2 months. This compared to an average custodial sentence length of 13.4 months in Wales.
Women in Wales are more likely to receive short-term custodial sentences than men. More than three quarters (78.6%) of all women sentenced to immediate custody in Wales between 2010 and 2017 were handed sentences of less than 12 months. This is compared to 67% of male offenders sentenced in Wales.
The level of racial disproportionality is higher among the Welsh prison population than the English prison population.
White offenders sentenced to immediate custody in Wales had the lowest average custodial sentence length in 2017 (13.2 months). Black offenders in Wales recorded the highest average sentence length (21.5 months), followed by Asian (19 months) and Mixed race (17.7 months).
Alex Hewson, spokesperson for the Prison Reform Trust said the report raises “a number of interesting findings and questions” about differences in the use of prison between England and Wales.
He said: “The UK as a whole remains out of step in its response to crime compared with our nearest neighbours, imprisoning more people per capita than any other western European country.”
“However, a commitment to reunifying the Welsh probation service following earlier ill-fated reforms, and to develop plans on a better approach to tackling women’s offending, present a real opportunity for Wales to reduce its reliance on prison and build confidence in more effective community services.”
Jane Hutt, the Welsh government deputy minister with responsibility for crime and justice policy, pointed out that justice remains an issue that is not devolved to the Welsh government.
She said: “While justice remains a non-devolved function, work is underway to get the best possible solution for Wales ... We are developing proposals on how a distinct and different justice system would operate specifically for female and youth offenders in Wales.
“Early intervention and prevention are key - considering how we can divert people away from crime in the first place in a holistic and rehabilitative way is essential to Wales’ future outlook.”
Commenting on the report, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “As we have said previously, the prison population is too high and we are exploring potential alternatives to custody – such as reducing the number of ineffective short sentences which provide little opportunity to rehabilitate offenders and fail to tackle reoffending.
“We are clear that prison will continue to be the best place for serious offenders.”