Ministers are to pilot New-York-style problem-solving courts, in which judges review the progress of offenders after they are sentenced to try to keep them out of jail, the Ministry of Justice said.
The model is to be trialled at five courts as part of a sentencing overhaul for England and Wales. However the moves include include other measures that are likely to put more pressure on the prison estate.
Problem-solving courts, which often specialise in handling drug or alcohol addiction, domestic abuse and housing cases, involve imposing non-custodial punishments and require repeat attendance before a judge for regular assessment.
The government has been considering the model for some time, with Michael Gove, when he was justice secretary between 2015 to 2016, expressing enthusiasm for the courts after meeting some of the US judges who run them.
Support for the idea waned as the pressure of MoJ austerity cuts forced courts to close and reduced the number of days that a judge would sit. Some judges, overburdened with cases, it is thought, were less eager to take on additional duties reviewing offenders’ progress.
The courts are among a handful of policies aimed at diverting people away from prison in a new sentencing white paper being unveiled on Wednesday. Others include beefing up community sentences and increasing use of treatment programmes for vulnerable offenders.
Judges have been calling for more robust community sentences as alternatives to prison terms for years. Appearing before the Commons justice select committee in 2016, the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said tougher community punishments should be developed.
The white paper also includes plans to launch a review into how the justice system supports offenders with conditions such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia, as well as reforming criminal records disclosure to reduce the time period in which offenders have to declare offences to employers.
The justice secretary, Robert Buckland, said: “Our measures will ensure the most serious violent and sexual offenders get the prison time they deserve, while new community interventions and changes to rules around criminal records will help boost rehabilitation and cut reoffending – which means creating fewer victims.”
But a significant chunk of the reforms will ultimately lead to an increase in the already overcrowded prison population.
The Guardian understands the MoJ expects the net effect of the measures to increase the prison population by around 600 by 2028-29 – but this relies on plans to increase the number of prison places by 10,000 being delivered.
Other reforms include lowering the age at which whole life orders can be handed down for murder from 21 to 18 and ending the halfway release of offenders sentenced to between four and seven years in prison for serious crimes such as rape, manslaughter and GBH with intent. Instead, they will spend two-thirds of their time in custody before being subject to strict licence conditions upon release.
In addition, the starting point for determining sentences for those aged between 15 and 17 who commit murder will be increased from a minimum of 12 years to two-thirds of the equivalent starting point for adults. Those aged between 10 and 14 would get starting points at half the adult equivalent, bringing this to between eight and 15 years.