Monday, 15 June 2015

Refreshing But Not Satisfying

It’s refreshing to hear a mainstream politician call for a reduction in prison numbers. Lib Dem leadership candidate Norman Lamb makes a powerful case in The Huffington Post that the Ministry of Justice should set a target of halving the prison population by 2025.  He wants the billion pound plus savings used to fund mental health and drug treatment and other community based measures which can better turn people’s lives round than do spells of imprisonment. The call echoes that made in the  2010 report on Justice Reinvestment by the House of Commons Justice Select Committee chaired by Lamb’s former colleague Sir Alan Beith.

One question the Lib Dems need to answer is why they had relatively little positive influence on penal policy during the Coalition years. It’s true that the prison population stayed relatively stable -there were a few hundred more prisoners when the Lib Dems left office in May than when they took it in 2010. On the credit side, Lamb himself raised the priority given to diverting defendants with mental health problems out of the courts and Simon Hughes developed some constructive resettlement initiatives in women’s prisons. But the prison system as a whole is in a much more parlous state through reckless cost-cutting. Inexplicably, the Lib Dems were enthusiasts for the Secure College for juveniles and failed to act to prevent either the breakup of the probation service, or the introduction of the iniquitous court charge which is causing increasing concern among magistrates up and down the country.   

Things would have been worse without us will be the familiar Lib Dem refrain; but one inconvenient truth about today’s intervention is that radical penal reform is unlikely to be a red line  in future coalition negotiations, should the Lib Dem Lamb lay down with the Tory or Labour lion.

A further truth is that, hugely worthwhile reforms as they are, strengthening community based alternatives  and introducing presumptions against  short prison terms will have only a marginal impact on the prison population on any one day. At the end of March 2015, prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or under comprised fewer than 7,000 out of the 85,000 people behind bars. Take all of them out and you can reduce your prison capacity and costs by 8% at most.

 Short sentenced prisoners of course represent a much higher proportion of all those who go in and out of prison during the course of a year- of the 78,000 received into prison to serve a sentence in 2014, 43,000 were doing a year or less. It’s this group that Lamb may have in his sights and could plausibly aim to halve in number. But achieving the objective would not free up the resources on the scale he’d like and we all need.

To do that he’d need to pledge to cut sentence lengths. There’s a strong case for doing so - they are higher than in other Western European countries – and of limited penological value. But politically it’s become a no go area to call for milder sanctions.

Lamb argues that the Lib Dems  “will never by afraid of radical evidence-based policies to improve people's lives and keep the public safe - and a rallying cry to reduce the prison population will be a key part of that”.  If he’s true to his word he should take a look not just at how many people go to prison but how long they stay there.  

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Stupid Cases

Back in 2001, I ran a campaign called Rethinking Crime and Punishment which aimed to raise the level of public debate about prison and alternatives. I'm not sure what impact it made, as by the time the main work finished in 2005, the prison population in England and Wales had increased by 17% (from 65,000 to 76,000). But of course without it , prison numbers could have been higher still.......

During the project, I started to compile a dossier of press reports of what seemed to me the worst examples of prison being used inappropriately. I was reminded of it by last week’s jailing of Gemma Wale for indulging in noisy sex and today’s failed appeal by naked rambler Stephen Gough. I found the file easily enough, saved as “Stupid Cases”.

Both Ms Wale and Mr Gough have breached court orders and failing to comply with rulings was a common feature of the stupid cases from the early 2000's. There were Norfolk grandparents given 28 days imprisonment after pleading guilty to cutting down a hedge in breach of a civil court injunction. (54 year old Marilyn Girling was held at Highpoint prison alongside Moors murderer Myra Hindley). Another woman Samantha Richards served 3 months for refusing to take down a fence placing herself in contempt of court.

There were several mothers sent to jail for failing to ensure their children attended school. One,a pregnant mother of an 11 year old truant, sentenced to 28 days, had her appeal turned down on Christmas Eve 2002. (Her husband was fined but not threatened with prison).  .

There were plenty of cases where people had acted foolishly and faced paying a price heavier than that imposed by the courts. Would a community punishment not have been possible for the (soon to be ex-) head teacher who received 3 months after pleading guilty to forging SATS papers at two primary schools; or a staff member who admitted
stealing exam papers from the school where she worked and showing them in advance to candidates? Or even the football fan who faced a six year stadium ban and received 4 months inside for running on the pitch and taunting the Aston Villa goalkeeper?

The dossier included hoaxers – the German trucker who admitted wasting police time after joking to a channel tunnel official that he was carrying TNT (28 days); entrepreneurs - John Collison who collected lost golf balls and sold them on (6 months) and geeks – an obsessive who made £50,000 worth of telephone calls for free to play computer games (2 months).

Some of the cases had a comical edge- the cannabis grower jailed after declaring illicit earnings to the tax man. Others were tragic; the mother jailed for drunken driving   after an accident which saw her daughter killed.” 

Several of the cases were successfully appealed but all served some time in prison. For Collison the experience was terrifying.  He told a paper that he had to strip off and stand naked while an officer took his personal belongings -just the sort of behaviour that has landed Mr Gough in so much trouble.

Finding an appropriate response to these kind of cases is not always easy, particularly where the court considers the offender has wilfully refused to fall into line or where a wider example is seen to be needed. I discontinued my dossier, but I am sure there are still plenty of these stupid cases. As with  Wale and Gough , courts surely need to take a step back to gain some perspective and sense of proportion about what they are doing. 

In the Christmas Eve truancy case in 2002, the Judge said that   “the magistrates had to pass a prison sentence because this matter had become so serious. They also felt a message needed to be sent to parents and children as to the importance of children attending school”. One can argue about the seriousness of all of these matters but risks arise once courts start to send out messages. Their decisions can  look as strange as those made by the people in the dock.