In Brief

Why does Wales have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe?

Study suggests sentencing irregularities and socioeconomic factors to blame

A new study revealing that Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe has been met with widespread concern from campaigners, politicians and academics.

Analysis of official sentencing figures from the past 20 years by the Wales Governance Centre's show there are an average of 154 prisoners for every 100,000 people in Wales.

This is a higher proportion than England, which has the second-highest imprisonment rate at 141 per 100,000 people, despite Wales having a lower crime rate.

By comparison, the rate of imprisonment in France and Germany is 92 and 89 per 100,000 people respectively.

The Guardian says “it is widely accepted that England and Wales jointly have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe but this is the first time the figures for each country, which share a legal system, have been analysed separately”.

Lead researcher Dr Robert Jones said the findings “pose a number of significant questions and raise many further difficult issues”.

Between 2010 and 2017, the total number of prison sentences handed out in England dropped by 16% while at the same time they rose by 0.3% in Wales.

Analysis reveals average custody rates are higher in Wales than in England for a number of different groups and offences, with non-white Welsh prisoners, in particular, overrepresented in prison.

The BBC reports that during recent evidence to the Commission on Justice in Wales, the Sentencing Council downplayed the likelihood that meaningful differences exist between England and Wales.

Jones said that while further analysis of sentencing outcomes - including the use of community sentences, fines and suspended sentences - was needed, attention should also be drawn to the significance of wider socioeconomic factors in Wales.

“In particular, the data should be considered in light of Wales’ status as one of the poorest parts of the UK,” he said. “Previous research has identified the symbiosis between poverty, marginalisation and imprisonment.”

Plaid Cymru’s leader in Westminster, Liz Saville Roberts, said it was a “source of shame” that Wales topped the league table for incarceration in western Europe, and added that the findings showed the current prison system was not fit for purpose.

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