Sunday, 20 November 2016

From Prison Reform to Sentencing Reform ?

Will last week’s events prove a defining moment in the history of prisons in England and Wales? The Sun thinks so, yesterday proclaiming that jails have become little more than a war-zone as the level of rioting, violence and drug-abuse reaches a tipping point.  Tuesday’s action by prison staff certainly represented a very a serious breakdown in industrial relations and whether these have been repaired remains to be seen. With the ink barely dry on a Prison White Paper  claiming to be the biggest overhaul of our prisons in a generation, it looks as if those who work in prisons are unconvinced that the measures it contains will secure their safety and that of the people in their custody.

Unsurprisingly, more radical measures are now being suggested. Former Governor Ian Acheson who reported on radicalisation in prisons earlier this year called in the Telegraph, for the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to be scrapped. NOMS -  Nightmare on Marsham Street, as it was known when under the  Home Office-  was intended to break down the silos of prison and probation and ensure a better focus on managing offenders. Acheson argued that it has become “an unloved, unlovely bureaucratic monster, dangerously out of touch with its operational heartland”.

NOMS first Chief Executive, Sir Martin Narey widened the focus still further in the Times by arguing for sentence lengths to be reduced, giving support to Michael Gove‘s argument in his  Longford Lecture that “we need to work, over time and pragmatically, to reduce our prison population”. This is something Gove resisted when as Justice Secretary he could have done something about it. Narey is still  a non-executive board member at the Ministry of Justice so perhaps could persuade Gove’s successor to do something on prison numbers. But what?

I was out of the country last week speaking for Penal Reform International at two events in Central Asia.   Kazakhstan has halved its prison population over the last fifteen years through a comprehensive package of reforms- decriminalising and reclassifying offences, diversion of minor cases, reducing remand time, shortening sentence lengths, earlier release, a new probation system and community sentences. The country developed and implemented a plan - “Ten steps to reduce the number of inmates”.  True the prison population is still pro rata higher than the UK’s – 250 per 100,000 population compared to 150 – but the direction of travel adopted in Astana is now sorely needed in Westminster.

Of course, the technical elements of any Ten Steps in England and Wales will be somewhat different to Kazakhstan’s.  Next month, Transform Justice will be publishing a report I’ve drafted which will argue that the Sentencing Council which produces guidelines for courts should play a much stronger role in reversing sentence inflation.  Earlier Transform Justice reports have argued for a justice reinvestment approach which devolves custodial budgets to regions to incentivise local bodies to prevent crime, rehabilitate offenders and reduce the use of prison.  With radical changes like these, prison numbers could start to come down to a more manageable level. Without them, the Government might be tempted to emulate one of Kazakhstan’s less progressive policies; back in 2011 it moved the prison system back from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Interior.

Conventional wisdom is that politicians who adopt a soft approach will be slaughtered in the media and the polls.  But the Sun on Sunday said today  “Our jails are stuffed with too many non-dangerous criminals…” That's as much of an  invitation to sentencing reform you are likely to get.        

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