Prisoners convicted of less serious offences will be released early under plans to free up capacity in jails.
Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said new powers will be granted to allow the Prison Service to move some people out of their cells and on to licence “up to 18 days before their automatic release date”.
He stressed that “this will not apply to anyone serving a life sentence” or anyone convicted of a serious violence offence, a sex offence or terrorism.
“This power will only be used for a limited period and only in targeted areas,” Mr Chalk told MPs.
He added that releases would only be made under certain conditions, including electronic tagging and attending appointments, and that a breach could lead to “recall to custody for the entire second half of the sentence”.
He also said the change would not apply to all “so-called lower-level offenders who are a blight on our communities”, adding: “For some offenders, the proper sanction is, I am afraid, the clang of the prison gate.”
It comes amid serious concerns about overcrowding in British prisons, with 88,225 people currently incarcerated in England and Wales.
That means the prison estate is around 500 places away from reaching its full capacity of 88,782.
Labour’s shadow justice secretary, Shabana Mahmood, said the plans announced by Mr Chalk were a “damning indictment of the government’s collective failure” to stop overcrowding in prisons.
Mr Chalk said the prison population in England and Wales is “greater than it’s ever been… nearly double the level it was three decades ago”.
He blamed the rise on the growing number of people awaiting trial amid the huge backlog in the crown courts, with 15,000 inmates currently on remand compared to 9,000 in 2019.
As part of plans to create extra capacity, Mr Chalk announced up to £400m for more prison places, enough to buy 800 new rapid deployment cells.
Further reforms include speeding up the scheme to remove foreign offenders, so they can be deported up to 18 months before they are due to be released rather than 12.
The government also wants to bring forward laws to enable prisoners to be held in jails overseas – an approach Mr Chalk said has been “taken by Belgium, Norway, and Denmark in recent years”.
In addition, the justice secretary confirmed plans to legislate that there should be a presumption against prison sentences of less than 12 months, saying low level prisoners could instead clean up neighbourhoods or scrub graffiti off walls to “repay their debt to society”.
He also outlined plans to “curtail” imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentences, which have led to lengthy open-ended sentences for prisoners deemed a risk to the public.
Last month, Sky News reported on the roughly 3,000 people who are stuck in prison effectively indefinitely because of the now-defunct scheme, which Mr Chalk called a “stain on our justice system”.
Responding to his statement, Ms Mahmood said despite the lengthy address Mr Chalk did not utter “one word of apology to the British public for failing in the first duty of government, and that is to keep our citizens safe”.
She added: “As everybody knows, the first stage of rehabilitation is to acknowledge your mistakes and make a sincere apology to those affected and let down by your actions or in his case inaction and his failure to do so today is utterly inexcusable.
“It is a damning indictment of this government’s collective failure. Our prisons are completely full. We have been sounding the alarm for many years now, as overcrowding has skyrocketed.”