Thousands of criminals to be freed as jails are declared 'absolutely full' for first time in history By JAMES SLACK Daily Mail 22nd February 2008 Jails were declared absolutely full last night for the first time in history. Even court and police cells were packed as the number of prisoners rose to 82,068 - almost 100 above the official safety limit. The crisis is expected to trigger the early release of thousands of muggers, burglars and other convicts. In a desperate attempt to buy time, Jack Straw begged magistrates to imprison fewer offenders. Bursting point: For the first time, there's not one prison cell to spare. The Justice Secretary said the courts were giving short jail terms when community punishments would be better. But magistrates refused point-blank to help him out of the shambles - saying they would continue to hand down whatever sentence they saw fit. The Magistrates' Association said it did not react kindly to being placed under "pressure" by ministers. Tory spokesman Nick Herbert said: "The prison system is now in genuine crisis. This is not the fault of magistrates but the result of sheer incompetence by this Government." The scope of the crisis was revealed in a Ministry of Justice statement that the number of inmates had reached an all-time high of 82,068. The total operational capacity - based on governors' advice on what is safe for "control, security and proper operation" - is only 81,972, including more than 350 places in police cells and courts. In a bid to get through the weekend, inmates jailed yesterday were crammed into prison spaces normally considered out of bounds by governors. But next week even this overspill is likely to be exhausted. Crisis: Justice Secretary Jack Straw has begged magistrates to imprison fewer offenders. Plans have been drawn up to extend an existing early release scheme called End of Custody Licence, which lets convicts out 18 days before their sentence reaches even the halfway point. It was implemented last June and has led to the early release of 16,000 inmates - one of whom has since committed a murder. Extending ECL to 30 days would free hundreds of spaces, but Downing Street is nervous about such a drastic step for fear of yet more damage to Labour's reputation on law and order. Officials at the Ministry of Justice, however, believe all other options have been exhausted. In the past week alone, they have bussed scores of inmates to open jails and announced a scheme to send foreign offenders home nine months early. But the panic measures have either come too late or achieved too little. Mr Straw was reduced to appealing direct to the courts, echoing a similar Government request in January 2007 to jail only the most dangerous villains, which itself sparked uproar among the judiciary. He said: 'We have 350 magistrates courts in England and Wales. "If each one ends up sentencing one extra prisoner a week to jail then we have got the increase we face. "There are effective alternatives in terms of non-custodial penalties which actually have a better record in terms of preventing re-offending." But Cindy Barnett, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, said the courts must have the freedom to impose sentences as they saw fit. She added: "We don't use custody lightly, we use it when it is so serious that nothing else can be justified and we must make that individual decision. "I think it would be very unfortunate if anything was said that is seen as pressure on individual sentences. I think that would be wrong." Tories accused the Government of "catastrophic mismanagement". Mr Herbert said: "They have ignored repeated warnings, failed to build adequate capacity and their belated building programme has fallen behind schedule." He said there must be no extension of ECL. Colin Moses of the Prison Officers' Association accused ministers of "total mismanagement". He warned: "The prisons are not safe. We have increased numbers yet again with no change in regime and no increase in staffing. This is risk management at the highest level." Ministers have promised to build an extra 14,000 prison places by 2014, including giant Titan jails holding 2,500 inmates. But the prison population is already outstripping projections made as recently as December. It means the building effort is unlikely to be sufficient.