Sunday, 27 May 2018

Prison Reform: See it, Say it, Sorted?

Is the Government finally grasping the nettle on Prison Reform?  If dynamic duo may not quite be the right description for Justice Secretary David Gauke and Prison Minister Rory Stewart, they are certainly adopting a bolder approach to criminal justice than their predecessors. In particular they are now openly recognising the desirability of getting prison numbers down. Their employment strategy launched this week included proposals for much more in the way of temporary release for prisoners serving sentences.  Now Gauke’s told The Times he wants a concerted effort to drastically reduce the number of people who are being locked up every year.

Having seen the parlous state of the prisons and the ever more yawning gap between policy aspiration and day to day reality on the wings, the new ministerial team are certainly saying many of the right things. The question now is can they sort them?

When I read that Gauke wants to start a debate about what punishment means, I was reminded of the work of the Rethinking Crime and Punishment (RCP), a programme I directed for the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation in the 2000’s. The first recommendation in our 2004 report was that “political leadership should be exercised to emphasise the goal of reducing the prison population while promoting the value of alternatives to prison”.  Gauke’s off to a promising start on that but how about the other ideas which emerged from the work we funded.  We wanted to see business coordinators in every prison to maintain
positive relationships with local employers; and more and better arts activity for prisoners. On both Gauke is on the same page. We argued for new approaches outside prison for women offenders and those with mental health problems; on this we’ll have to wait and see.

On alternatives to prison more broadly we wanted to see a major public education campaign about community penalties, and greater involvement of s
entencers and the public in their implementation. We piloted these ideas in the Thames Valley , enabling judges and magistrates to visit and discuss community-based programmes and members of the public to propose unpaid work assignments.  As RCP ended, we published a costed manifesto showing alternative uses for the £2.3 billion which had been allocated on new prison places. It would pay instead for higher quality community supervision, wider availability of restorative justice, women’s centres and link worker schemes for petty persistent offenders with mental health problems. Structured dialogue arrangements would keep judges and magistrates informed about what was available and how it was working.

The plan was politely received but no more. But it’s that kind of approach and investment that’s now needed, utilising some of the £1 billon in the MoJ’s new for old prison coffers. Along with encouragement for the Sentencing Council to do more to curb unnecessary imprisonment and development of models  for  more localised funding arrangements, there’ the chance not just of the tide turning,  but of a sea change.  

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