The number of prisoners in England and Wales has almost doubled in the last 25 years
The Treasury’s autumn spending review is only weeks away, and George Osborne’s in-tray is likely to be full of pleas to spare key services the axe. The Howard League for Penal Reform’s submission is on the chancellor’s desk too, but we have asked him to do something quite different.
Be bolder. Go further. Cut more. Tell the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to reduce the prison population by more than half – to its level during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
Mr Osborne asked departments whose budgets are not ring-fenced, including the MoJ, to submit plans to bring down spending by 25 and 40 per cent. In line with this request, the Howard League has put forward policy plans that would cut the prison population by 25 and 40 per cent respectively – while arguing that the government shouldn’t stop there.
The number of men, women and children in prisons in England and Wales has almost doubled in 25 years – from fewer than 45,000 in 1990 to almost 86,000 today. Reducing the prison population to its level under Thatcher would allow governors to improve prison conditions, which were described in July by the chief inspector of prisons as being at their worst in a decade.
So how do we achieve this? Here are some suggestions that, if enacted, would lead to changes so significant that dozens of jails could be closed:
Prohibit the use of short-term sentences (less than 12 months)
Short-term sentences are expensive and counter-productive, yet more than 57,000 people are sentenced to serve them each year. They are long enough to disrupt often already chaotic lives but too short to enable a person to begin to address the causes of their offending. A person with a job, home and family before they go into custody on a short sentence is unlikely to have them all on release.
Unsurprisingly, reoffending among short-sentenced prisoners is very high, creating further victims. MoJ research has concluded that suspended sentences and community sentences are not only cheaper, but also result in less reoffending.
Limit the use of remand
On any one day more than 8,000 people in prison have not been found guilty of an offence. A further 3,500 are awaiting sentence. Whilst remand may be needed when a person appears to be a danger to public safety and a flight risk, it is used far too often, particularly for those charged with misdemeanours. Seventy per cent of people remanded in custody by magistrates do not go on to receive a custodial sentence.
Reduce recalls to custody
The number of people who are in prison because they have been recalled to custody while serving their sentences in the community is 55 times greater than it was in 1993. Many people are recalled not for offences, but for technical breaches of their licence. Whilst these are not always trivial, they can almost always be dealt with in the community.
Use women’s centres in the community, not prisons
On any given day about 4,000 women are in prison, but only a very small number have committed serious violent offences and present a risk to the public. The overwhelming majority of women in prison have serious mental health problems and many are mothers, separated from their children.
Women’s centres are proven to be much more effective than prison in helping women change their lives and reducing reoffending. Ensuring women’s centres are properly funded and closing women’s prisons would result in huge savings.
Improve the effectiveness of the parole system
There are more people serving life and indeterminate sentences in England and Wales than in all of the other 46 countries in the Council of Europe combined. A large number of prisoners are serving more time in custody than intended because of delays in the parole system and a lack of access to work, education and courses that enable them to show they are ready for release.
Reduce the number of criminal offences
Between May 2010 and May 2014, 1,076 new criminal offences were created in England and Wales, about two-thirds of which carry potential prison sentences. The current habit of creating ever more offences and reasons to put people into the criminal justice system must be curbed.
Tackle sentence inflation
Over the last 10 years the average length of a prison sentence in England and Wales has increased by 24 per cent. For some offences, such as fraud and criminal damage and arson, average sentence lengths have increased by more than 50 per cent, but this trend has had no impact on reoffending rates.
Almost all other European countries have shorter average sentence lengths than England and Wales.
We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sort out the bloated criminal justice system. We can cut crime and save the taxpayer billions. All that is needed is a little common sense.
Rob Preece works at the Howard League for Penal Reform. Follow him on Twitter
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