Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Speech Liz Truss Should Have Given......

I am glad to be at the Centre for Social Justice because our prison system is anything but socially just. The use of prison inevitably imposes enormous financial, social and ethical costs.  In what everyone can now agree were reckless efforts to rein in the first of these costs, the second and third have risen to unacceptable levels.  As a former management accountant I am determined to do something about that.

In terms of the numbers of prisoners, it is shameful that we have the highest prison population rate in Western Europe and almost twice the rate of the Netherlands and Germany.   And while prison numbers have at least not risen since 2010, they should really have fallen. The numbers sentenced by the courts for indictable and either way offences has fallen from 370,000 to 280,000 in the last six years. It’ s true that there has been a marked increase in convictions for sex offences and the public rightly expect the most serious cases to receive a proper level of  punishment. But how, in a period of austerity, with prisons in crisis, are we to justify the fact that more than 27% of theft and burglary offences were punished with imprisonment last year compared to 22% in 2010? Or that the average sentence lengths for these crimes rose from 8.8 to 9.2 months?  There’s a similar pattern to drug offences and fraud. 

I would like to see prison reserved for the most serious offenders and sentence lengths brought into line with Western European norms.  I am instructing the Sentencing Council to revise its guidelines to give effect to that. We should aim to reduce our prison population by ensuring that the upper limits of the revised sentencing guidelines are not exceeded by the courts and by encouraging alternative problem solving approaches and restorative justice wherever that is justified. In many cases this might involve a more lenient approach than some might like but we desperately need a more varied and effective approach to the complexity of crime so that victims, offenders and the public get better results.

In drawing up guidelines, the Council must look at the cost and effectiveness of sentences. I have to say on those criteria, I am not convinced that all of the people that currently go to prison need to be there, or be there so long. Of the 77,000 people sentenced to prison for the more serious offences last year, 28,000 were sentenced for theft and burglary. More than 30,000 of the 77,000 were sentenced to 6 months or less. I’m pleased that the number of short sentences has been falling but it has a long way to go. After my review of Probation reports next month, I will be looking at ways that the service can contribute to diverting many more of these short term offenders from jail.  I am also interested in exploring how elements of a prison sentence can be converted into a community based sanction. If prisoners agree to undertake a period of unpaid work in the community for example they could be released earlier from custody than they otherwise might have been.

This will help  with overcrowding which I now realise is the key problem that needs to be solved before we can regain control of our prisons and start to make them the rehabilitative institutions we have been promising.  To provide immediate respite, there will be a presumption that all sentences of up to 2 years will be suspended.  I am also taking executive action to release IPP prisoners who have now served longer than the maximum current sentence for their offence and for all post tariff cases, I will be taking to steps to ensure that prisoners only continue to be detained if there is evidence they remain a danger to the public.

I hope that these measures might give the prison system the breather it needs. I might be accused of a quick fix but I believe I am taking the necessary urgent action to address what is an emergency while laying the groundwork for a sustainable future.  To inform longer term plans I have established a Justice Reinvestment Task Force which will report by the summer on how to establish direct financial incentives for local agencies to spend money in ways which would reduce prison numbers. I am not convinced that the costs of imprisonment should continue to be borne at national level.  At the end of the day, prison is only a small part of the answer to crime.    


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