Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Eating an Elephant: How to reduce the prison population

Last week I heard a senior figure from the Ministry of Justice quizzed about whether the government’s ambitious prison reform plans were possible without a reduction in the numbers of prisoners. He said that while the aim over time was to bring about a fall in the prison population via improved rehabilitation, an overt policy of reducing numbers could alienate the press and public and put the reform strategy at risk. Besides he went on, while the size of the prison population might be the elephant in the room, the only way to eat an elephant is in bite size chunks.

What might be the items on the prison reduction menu if the government did want to adopt a more direct strategy to reverse the rising population?

There has of course been  remarkable (but largely unremarked) progress in cutting the number of under 18’s in custody over the last few years. At the end of February, there were 877 under 18’s behind bars, almost two thousand fewer than ten years ago. The roughly 4,700 18-20 year olds in prison at the turn of the year represents a decline too, of 40% in five years. The forthcoming Justice Committee report could prompt measures to extend the progress yet further up the young adult age range.

Earlier in the year, the Prime Minister accepted that there’s a strong case for the severely mentally ill, and women with small children, “to be dealt within a different way” so we can perhaps look forward to some concrete proposals on what this might entail. This week’s inspection of HMP Lewes, found that the needs of “the large number of disabled and older prisoners” were not being met- the oldest prisoner was 91. The development of a more imaginative way of accommodating such vulnerable people outside the closed prison estate looks long overdue. The Government, will no doubt continue to seek to eat into the number of foreign national prisoners by transferring them, one way or another to their countries of origin. It’s possible too that they will act to address the scandal of post tariff IPP cases.

Each of these initiatives would all help to reduce the pressure on the prisons, but if the Government is serious about achieving its aim “to lead the world with new rehabilitation techniques and smarter ways of managing prisoners”, something much bolder is required in the way of sentencing reform. Ministers seem to be talking up the way that proposed Problem Solving Courts could reduce the use of prison; but threatening swift  and certain spells of detention to encourage compliance with community supervision could well backfire.

Prisons minister Andrew Selous told the Justice Committee yesterday that the Ministry would be reviewing sentencing this year but responsibility for this has been given to Dominic Raab- a hawkish voice who seems to favour extended spells in custody for persistent offenders.

A better approach might be to invite the Sentencing Council to review the going rate for particular offences and make recommendations for scaling down across the piece. The Council has so far proved something of a disappointment, nowadays seeing its role as simply endorsing existing sentencing practice rather than influencing it. But it is the obvious body to help produce a better match between the demand for prison places and their supply.

There is an African proverb that you never finish eating the meat of an elephant. But a wholesale review of sentencing could get a lot further than toying with  a few bite size chunks. 

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