Thursday, 24 August 2017

Why the Punitive (Re)Turn?

Why is the prison population increasing? Latest projections show numbers in custody are likely to increase by 1600 – at least one new prison’s worth – by 2022. The main reason is not that more and more people are being caught and punished for criminal offences. It’s that higher and higher proportions of those who are, nowadays receive custodial sentences. And their prison terms are getting longer. Both trends are confirmed in the latest criminal justice statistics. These show that it’s not only sexual and violent offenders who are facing tougher sanctions in court. Less than a quarter of people convicted for theft in 2010 went to jail but last year it was almost 30%. Average prison terms as a whole have gone up from 13.7 to 16.6 months over the last seven years.

It’s possible that courts are seeing more serious cases or more prolific offenders than before. That’s difficult to know in the absence of detailed research. But the halving of the cautioning rate – the proportion of offenders who were either cautioned or convicted who received a caution- suggest that many more low level cases came to court in 2016 than 2010.

There are other more likely explanations for this new punitive turn. The dismantling of the probation service may have made non-custodial sentences it supervises less attractive to judges and magistrates. Since 2010 the proportion of indictable only crimes- the most serious- dealt with by a community order or suspended sentence fell from a quarter to a fifth. For either way offences, market share for these two disposals fell from 42% to 37%.

Another culprit may be the Sentencing Council. A recent analysis has found that the guideline it produced on burglary offences in 2011 may have inadvertently encouraged courts to deal more severely with all types of breaking and entering. Although the Council did not intend to inflate the going rate, expanding the definition of the loss to the victim in such cases and creating a long list of factors signalling greater culpability by the offender seems to have pushed courts to punish offences more harshly than before.   As I argued in a report for Transform Justice last year, the Council has not only failed to curb the growth in imprisonment-its original purpose. It may have made matters worse.

A poll published this week confirmed what has long been known- that the public is much less punitive than is often supposed. Asked what they believe would be most effective in cutting crime, more police on the streets, better parenting, greater discipline in schools and better rehabilitation all score highest. Just 7% of the public think the answer is more people in prison.  Yet without some bold policy making in the Ministry of Justice, that’s just what we are going to get.

    

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