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.  

1 comment:

  1. Well said BUT Labour added to the chaos as has been apparent in the main stream UK media in last week, by messing up the Parole situation with aspects of their 2003 Criminal Justice Act as they tried to out tough the Tories & trade on fear of crime, something Liberal Democrats did nothing about in five years.

    I once though highly of Simon Hughes I now think he is a despicable hypocrite, meanwhile his MOJ predecessor did not seem to understand the import of the legislation he introduced with the ORA 2014.

    I fear I am personalising this - most of the rest of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary tribe added to the dangers to the public with their votes for some dreadful legislation.

    I saw a good legal Blog about this earlier & posted a comment there as well.

    thanks to Rob Allen for his consistent high standard of commentary