Comment: Pushing up prison numbers isn’t the answer

What people should know is that prisons are secure, costly, overcrowded institutions with unacceptably high reoffending rates.

By Juliet Lyon

Reform of our justice system is at the centre of parliamentary debate. Today sees the second reading of a bill which started life as a justice green paper and entered parliament as a punishment bill.

The bill still presents an opportunity to get to grips with a distorted, often ineffective, system which places too much store on what imprisonment can achieve. But new clauses and more mandatory sentences, not subject to consultation, and a harsher tone could destabilise a carefully crafted bill by further inflating prison numbers. The big risk is in bashing an already beleaguered prison service for failing to cut crime whilst expecting it to do even more with even less.

Announcing the introduction of the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill, the prime minister stated that: "We have got to stop this massive acceleration in prisoner numbers. But the right way to do that is to reform prison and make it work better."

Improving prison performance represents an important but partial solution to a pressing economic and social problem. The bill stands or falls on whether the measures it contains succeed in limiting prison numbers to an unavoidable minimum.

The latest edition of the Prison Reform Trust's Bromley Briefing Prison Factfile published today reveals that inflation in sentencing and massive overuse of custody over the last 18 years leaves us with a society where seven per cent of school children experience their father's imprisonment. Estimates reveal that more children are affected by parental imprisonment than by divorce in the family. Today, the prison population is around 85,000. When Ken Clarke was last in charge of prisons and probation in 1992/93 it was less than 45,000.

The bill proposes to review the runaway indeterminate sentence for public protection, cut any unnecessary use of custodial remand, increase discretion in response to technical breach of licence and intervene to get children and young people out of trouble. Plans to strengthen rehabilitation, making prison a place where serious offenders do time rather than waste time, should reduce reoffending on release. The bill has the capacity to place prison firmly where it belongs – as an important place of last resort – no more, no less.

Prisons always command our attention. Their bolts and bars represent an abiding image which everyone recognises but comparatively few look beyond to life inside. Popular myths have grown up around perks for prisoners and prisons as holiday camps. What people should know about our least visible public service is that prisons are secure, costly, overcrowded institutions with unacceptably high reoffending rates.

Contrary to popular belief, organised criminals who profit from crime and misery are not often found behind bars. Instead prisons have become a dumping ground for those failed by other public services. Over 70% of children in prison have been involved with, or in the care of, social services prior to their imprisonment. Over half the women in prison have been victims of domestic violence and one in three has suffered sexual abuse. Around half of all prisoners are at, or below, the level expected of an 11-year-old in reading and 65% in numeracy. Just a third of people leaving prison go into education, training or employment. Far too many of the growing mass of former prisoners are homeless, jobless and ready to offend again.

Unsurprisingly, prison has a poor record for reducing crime. Despite some improvements, 49% of adults are still reconvicted within one year of being released – for those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 61%. The rate of reoffending for those who have served more than ten previous custodial sentences is 79%. The National Audit Office estimates that reoffending by former prisoners costs the economy between £9 billion and £13 billion a year.

Deprivation of liberty is the most severe punishment in our justice system. There are many other tried and tested measures across government departments and local authorities which cut crime and make communities safer. Community penalties are outperforming short spells behind bars. Plans in the bill to strengthen local community payback should build on their success and will win public support.

An ICM poll of 1,000 victims of crime, commissioned by SmartJustice in partnership with Victim Support, shows that almost two-thirds of victims of crime do not believe that prison works to reduce non-violent crime. In another recent poll only 11% of people surveyed believe that increasing the number of offenders in prisons would 'do most' to reduce crime in Britain. The public is more focused on intervening at the level of families and young people, with 55% thinking that better parenting would have most effect.

The strong partnership between health and justice should at long last make provision for proper diversion for people who are mentally ill and those with learning disabilities, to get the treatment and care they need and for addicts to break free from drugs and drink. These measures alone, if properly implemented, will cut crime, reduce prison numbers and improve public health at a stroke.

The mother of a young man who committed suicide in Manchester prison wrote: "My son did not cope well with prison. Care for the mentally ill should be therapeutic and in surroundings conducive to peace and recovery – not the barred, noisy, stressful and gardenless prison." Her courage and determination to change things inspired the National Federation of Women's Institutes' 'Care Not Custody' campaign. Prompted by the WI, national diversion and liaison schemes at police stations and courts have won the support of professional bodies ranging from the Royal College of Nursing to the Police Federation, from prison governors' and prison officers' to magistrates' associations – in total representing over one million members.

Politicians may be tempted to pepper speeches with references to toughness and punishment that win headlines and a few editorials. But most know that, when it comes to justice reform, there is more to agree on than to argue about. Over 1,200 professional organisations and people responded to the green paper consultation. There is a solid, mainstream consensus across political parties, justice professionals and the public on the need to take a more proportionate, effective approach. The government should have the confidence to act on it.

Juliet Lyon is director of the Prison Reform Trust

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