Prison sentences of under a year should be abolished to help combat increased levels of violence within UK jails, ministers have been told.
In a new report by the justice select committee, the government is advised to pursue a more urgent and radical approach before the “scale of the prison population crisis” escalates further still.
Assaults and self-harm inside prisons are both at record highs and the committee has warned that the “grave and worsening situation” is unlikely to improve unless the number of inmates is reduced.
The number of prisoners in England and Wales has almost doubled in size in the past 25 years and at the end of last week there were 82,417 inmates in jail.
There is also a higher proportion of offenders behind bars for serious violent or sexual crimes and an increase in the average age of inmates.
Justice Secretary David Gauke is already looking at the possibility of scrapping jail terms of six months or less, with exceptions made for violent and sexual offences, but the committee wants the approach to go further.
“We are now in the depths of an enduring crisis in prison safety and decency that has lasted five years and is taking significant additional investment to rectify, further diverting funds from essential rehabilitative initiatives that could stem or reverse the predicted growth,” the committee report said.
“The scale of the prison population crisis is such that it requires a fresh and decisive response.”
Among the proposals in the report are for short jail terms to be replaced by “robust” community orders, and a suggestion that judges could be given a role in monitoring those they sentence to carry out such service.
It said a focus on services was needed to reduce the £15bn annual cost of re-offending.
The committee wants the government to “model” the effects of abolishing sub-12 month sentences, with plans already in place to introduce a “presumption” against custodial terms of less than a year in Scotland.
Penal reform campaigners are in support of a change in approach, but the plans have been questioned by critics who are concerned about re-offending.
Last month, Conservative MP Philip Davies described the idea as “stupid” after obtaining figures showing criminals jailed for six months or less have committed more than 50 previous offences on average.
The committee report also raised concerns that support given to 10 jails chosen for a £10m safety drive could be at the expense of others in “serious need”.
Prisons minister Rory Stewart has pledged to resign if the scheme fails to achieve a reduction in violence and drugs at the selected establishments.
Tory MP and committee chairman Bob Neill said the ministry of justice and the treasury was taking a “crisis management approach” to prisons, and that “throwing money” at the problem “takes funding away from external rehabilitative programmes that could stem or reverse many of the problems”.