Skip to main content

Wales imprisonment rate highest in Western Europe

16 January 2019

Inside a modern prison

Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe, according to research by Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre.

‘Sentencing and Immediate Custody in Wales: A Factfile’, published today (Wednesday Jan 16) provides a detailed statistical comparison of sentencing and immediate custody figures in Wales and England.

It is widely accepted that England and Wales jointly has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe. But this is the first time the figures for each country have been analysed separately.

When using the home address of each offender to differentiate between the two countries, the research found a higher proportion of Wales’ overall population was serving time in prison than England for every year since 2013, when data became available.

In 2017, there were 154 Welsh prisoners per 100,000 of the Welsh population. This compared to a rate of 141 English prisoners per 100,000 of the population of England.

The report also shows that while the total number of custodial sentences handed out by courts in England fell by 16% between 2010 and 2017, the number increased marginally at courts in Wales by 0.3% during the same period. This is despite the fact that police recorded crime in Wales was lower than England every year between 2013 and 2017.

Dr Robert Jones of the Wales Governance Centre, 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.

The report uncovers a number of other significant disparities between Wales and England, including:

  • 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.
  • A higher percentage of sentences of four years or more were handed out in England (8.9%) than in Wales (6.2%) between 2010 and 2017.
  • A greater proportion of short-term custodial sentences were handed out in Wales than in England between 2010 and 2017. 68.1% of all custodial sentences in Wales were for less than 12 months compared to 63.9% in England.
  • 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. One in four (24.8%) women handed an immediate custodial sentence in Wales were sentenced to one month or less in prison between 2010 and 2017.
  • Welsh and English prisoners from a White ethnic group were under-represented in prison in 2017, with the level of racial disproportionality 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).

Welsh-only and English-only prison population data were obtained from the Ministry of Justice using the Freedom of Information Act.

Dr Jones added: “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.”

Share this story

We undertake innovative research into all aspects of the law, politics, government and political economy of Wales, as well the wider UK and European contexts of territorial governance.